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The Spanish Infinitive: Its Functions and How To Use It

Updated on November 4, 2016
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Katie graduated with both a BA in Chemistry from BYU and a BA in Spanish from UVU in 2016. She began medical school in July '16.

What is an infinitive?

Google's dictionary defines an infinitive as "the basic form of a verb, without an inflection binding it to a particular subject or tense." In other words, it's what we think of as an unconjugated verb. Some examples in English are "(to) jump," "(to) eat" or "(to) drive."

A Real Life Example of How the Infinitive is Used as a Noun in the Spanish Language

This sign reads "Throwing Away Trash is Prohibited Here."  What is prohibited?  Throwing trash away.  The act of throwing away the trash, or littering, is prohibited and is being used as a noun.
This sign reads "Throwing Away Trash is Prohibited Here." What is prohibited? Throwing trash away. The act of throwing away the trash, or littering, is prohibited and is being used as a noun.

The Infinitive: An Introduction to its Form and Uses

The infinitive form of all Spanish verbs end in ar, er or ir. They are the equivalent of the english verb form that ends in -ing. In Spanish, the English verb form ending in –ing is translated using an infinitive. E.g. eating translates to comer. Comer, which ends in er, is an infinitive.

It is relatively widely accepted that Spanish infinitives can be used as nouns or as verbs. There is some controversy as to whether or not Spanish infinitives can be used as adjectives in the combination of “noun + a + an infinitive” as in “un idea a tener en cuenta.” Other than this undecided issue, it is relatively widely agreed that infinitives either function as noun or as verbs.

When an infinitive is functioning as a noun, it usually singular and masculine, and like most Spanish nouns, infinitives can be modified by articles, adjectives, and demonstratives. Additionally, there aren't restrictions as to the role in the sentence an infinitive acting as a noun can play. This means that, when acting as a noun, the infinitive can be a subject, predicate nominative, the object of a preposition or a direct or indirect object.

When a Spanish infinitive is functioning as a verb it can take an implicit (specified) subject and can be modified with object pronouns and adverbs.

The Infinitive as a Noun

With the exception of the plural, masculine examples shown in the table below, when used as a noun, infinitives are singular and masculine. (Verbs don't have gender, and infinitives don't have number when used as a verb.)

Some infinitives, including those in the table below, have become permanent nouns. They can take the plural form as shown. Just like other nouns, adjectives, articles and demonstratives that modify an infinitive have to agree with the infinitive in both number and gender.

De is not inserted between an adjective and the infinitive when the infinitive is the subject. It is, however, when the infinitive is not the subject of the sentence. De + infinitive can be used like si + finite verb if the subject of the si clause and the subordinate clause are the same person. However, this can only be done with a future or unfulfilled meaning. It can’t be timeless.

Singular
Meaning
Plural
El amanecer
dawn
Los amaneceres
El anochecer
dusk
Los anocheceres
El atardecer
dusk
Los atardeceres
El deber
duty
Los deberes
El haber
assets; income
Los haberes
El parecer
opinion
Los pareceres
El pesar
sorrow
Los pesares
El poder
power
Los poderes
El saber
knowledge
Los saberes
El ser
being
Los seres

Articles with the Infinitive

There are several situations in which the infinitive is modified by a definite article:

  • Al + infinitive construction that means “Upon ….ing” (in theory, this should only be used when the subjects are the same).
  • To attribute the idea to someone else
  • When the infinitive is qualified by a noun or a noun phrase joined to the infinitive. This is often done using the preposition de.
  • When the infinitive is the subject of a verb in literary styles
  • In some constructions involving en like “La moda en el vestir”

On the other hand, there are also times in which the use of the indefinite article or a demonstrative is appropriate. Both the indefinite and definite articles can also be used before a qualified infinitive.

Infinitives as Verbs

Infinitives that are being used as verbs aren’t limited in person or time. They can refer to actions in the past, present or future as well as actions that are in progress and can be either active or passive.

If the subject in both the main and subordinate clause (independent and dependent clause) is the same, the finite verb in the subordinate clause is replaced with the infinitive. Some verbs, examples are listed below, are exceptions to this rule and permit both que + finite and the infinitive in this situation. Choosing to use the infinitive may clear up ambiguity between the first and third person in these situations.

  • Negar
  • Desmintir
  • Afirmar
  • Confesar
  • Admitir
  • Reconocer
  • Recordar
  • Acordarse de
  • Ocultar (in newspaper styles)
  • Olvidar

Other situations in which a finite verb can be replaced by the infinitive include giving an abrupt response to a question; after more than (más que), less than (menos), or except; for naming or listing actions; and in indignant or sarcastic statements and questions.

Infinitives after Prepositions

Unlike participles and gerunds, Spanish infinitives can follow prepositions and prepositional phrases. The best word order is preposition+ infinitive + subject.

The infinitive will follow a preposition if the infinitive meets one of the three following conditions:

  1. it is modifying an intransitive verb (a verb that does not take a direct object),
  2. it follows a transitive verb (a verb that requires a direct object) that has an implicitly expressed direct object,
  3. it is after after an adjective or noun

However, if the infinitive is functioning as a direct object, there will not be a preposition immediately before it.

With verbs of needing, requesting and searching the infinitive should not be preceded by que. Rather, it should follow para.

In addition, it is possible to use the infinitive after the following subordinators if the subject of the subordinate verb and the main verb are the same. (If the subject is not the same, the subjunctive is required.)

  • Hasta
  • Para
  • Sin
  • Nada más
  • And those that require de que before a finite verb like antes de que, después de que, el hecho de que, etc.

Verbal Infinitives in Relative Clauses

Relative clauses are clauses that describe a noun. When a verb of saying or believing appears in a relative clause, an infinitive may replace a que + finite verb even when the subjects of the two clauses differ.

When the subjects aren’t the same and the relative clause has a verb of motion, que or para que and the subjunctive is required.

After verbs of perception, the infinitive has the connotation of a completed action.

The Imperative Infinitive

In addition, infinitives can be used as imperatives, or commands, in the following situations:

  • Instead of replacing the r from the infinitive with a d to form the vosotros, one can just use the infinitive in informal language
  • Instead of the usted/ustedes forms in brief imperatives in public notices; some controversy exists as to whether or not this can only be done with negative commands
  • Used to introduce the last point in radio or TV news items

Using the infinitive as an imperative when speaking directly to someone is considered substandard.

The Rhetorical Infinitive

The final use of the infinitive is the “Rhetorical infinitive.” This is when the infinitive is used in rhetorical questions to express disbelief, indignation or sarcasm. It is typically used after words like ¿dónde?, ¿para qué? ¿a dónde ir? ¿para qué insister?

“Venga a + infinitive” expresses the idea of tiresome repetition.

How do you feel about your use of the Spanish infinitive?

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    • kbdressman profile image
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      kbdressman 22 months ago from Harlem, New York

      Thanks, Ryan! You make a good point!

    • profile image

      Ryan 23 months ago

      But they have different menngais:Waiter: I recommend the fish. It was caught today. (He's saying that the fish is good).I recommend Susan for the job. (saying that Susan is good)My previous boss wrote me a very good letter of recommendation. As opposed to suggest:Person 1: I'm broke.Person 2: Then I suggest you get a job. (similar to the word should' meaning that it's a good idea; but you don't have to do it it's just a suggestion)

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