Spanish Infinitive Verbs: 5 Uses for Unconjugated Verb Forms
Infinitives are the plain, base forms of Spanish verbs—the forms you see when you pop open a Spanish dictionary or dictionary app.
You might also see them scrawled across the board and at the front of a Spanish classroom, underlined with lists of conjugations underneath.
But what about the infinitive verb itself? We’ll cover how these verb forms are used in Spanish sentences and conversations to express certain ideas.
- What Are Spanish Infinitive Verbs?
- How the Spanish Infinitive is Used
- Study Spanish Infinitive Verbs in Context
What Are Spanish Infinitive Verbs?
Spanish infinitive verbs always end in –ar, –er or –ir.
These are the verb forms that you see listed in a dictionary. These always correspond to an English verb preceded by to.
- hablar — to speak
- bailar — to dance
- estornudar — to sneeze
- comer — to eat
- vivir — to live
- ir — to go
Infinitives by themselves tell us what the action is, but they don’t tell us who’s doing it or when they’re doing it (past, present, future, etc.).
If I want to say “I’m speaking,” for example, I would need to conjugate hablar in the present tense (yo hablo) or present progressive tense (estoy hablando).
So, if we can’t use infinitives to talk about who’s doing what, what can we do with them? Let’s take a look.
How the Spanish Infinitive is Used
1. Spanish infinitives after conjugated verbs
As you learn new verbs in Spanish, you’ll find that many of them can be followed by infinitives. Often, the English version of these infinitives translates as to + verb.
- Quiero comprar un billete. — I want to buy a ticket.
- Prefiero volar. — I prefer to fly.
- Odio bailar. — I hate dancing.
- No sé nadar. — I don’t know how to swim.
In this way, Spanish infinitives can also function as objects. That is, they can follow a verb and grammatically be considered the thing being acted on.
You’ll also encounter many verbs that “go with” a preposition (a small word like a, en, etc.) and are then followed by an infinitive.
- Voy a comer. — I’m going to eat.
- Empezamos a leer. — We’re starting to read.
- Acabo de estudiar. — I just studied.
- Disfruto de cantar. — I enjoy singing.
It’s thus best to learn such verbs as short phrases, along with their prepositions. The use of the preposition with each verb should feel automatic.
2. Spanish infinitives as nouns
Infinitives come in handy when you want to talk about an action in a general way.
In English, we would often use a gerund (a noun made from a verb ending in “-ing”) in such cases.
- Estudiar español es interesante. — Studying Spanish is interesting.
- Jugar ajedrez es divertido. — Playing chess is fun.
- El saber proviene de la experiencia. — Knowing (wisdom) comes from experience.
In these cases, the infinitive is grammatically functioning as a noun and the subject of the sentence, that is, it’s the “thing” that’s performing an “action.”
You can use infinitives in this way when you’re making broad statements about what an action is like, or what it does.
You’ve probably also learned the phrase me gusta _______, which means “I like_______” or literally “_______ pleases me.”
You can use an infinitive in that blank to talk about actions that you like.
- Me gusta caminar. — I like walking.
- Me gusta volar. — I like flying.
- Me gusta leer. — I like reading.
What activities do you like doing? You can explain with the above constructions.
3. Expressing obligation with Spanish infinitives
When somebody needs to do something, you can conjugate the verb tener (to have), then add the word que and an infinitive verb.
- Tenemos que irnos. — We have to get going.
- Tengo que leer. — I have to read.
- Tienes que ser bueno. — You have to be good.
- Tenéis que ver eso. — You guys have to see that.
If you want to talk in a general way about some action needing to happen, you can instead use the construction hay + que + infinitive.
This can be kind of a sneaky way of saying that something needs to be taken care of without explicitly saying who should do it.
In English, we often rework such a sentence into the passive voice to express the idea.
- Hay que sacar la basura. — The trash needs to be taken out.
- Hay que limpiar la ventana. — The window needs to be cleaned.
- Hay que mirar la telenovela. — The soap opera must be watched.
- Hay que creerme. — I must be believed. (Implied: Believe me!)
4. Spanish infinitives after prepositions
Prepositions can of course also show up in Spanish without any verb before them. When you want to put a verb after the preposition, you’ll use the infinitive form.
Often, the English equivalent makes use of the “-ing” form of the verb instead. We do love our gerunds in English.
- Al hablar con ella, entendí todo. — Upon speaking with her, I understood everything.
- Ten cuidado de bailar con él. — Be careful dancing with him.
- Gracias por escuchar. — Thanks for listening.
- Para sacar una buena nota, tienes que estudiar. — To get a good grade, you need to study.
5. Written signs with the Spanish infinitive
If you’ve learned the command forms (imperative mood) of verbs, you’ve probably wondered why there are written signs in Spanish without those forms.
You’re probably seeing signs that say things like:
- No fumar — No smoking
- No tocar — Don’t touch
It’s true that in conversation you would say something like “¡No fumes!“ (Don’t smoke!) or “No toques eso” (Don’t touch that).
But it’s quite common to just use the infinitive on signs. This use is pretty easy to notice and recognize. It just expresses the general idea that the action of the verb shouldn’t be happening here.
Study Spanish Infinitive Verbs in Context
The best way to get a feel for how infinitive verbs function in everyday speech and writing is to start seeing and hearing how they’re used in context.
If you want to see the infinitive in action, you can get a lot of helpful exposure from Spanish language literature and media.
You can even find videos of Spanish speakers on YouTube or other streaming services. The infinitive comes up frequently in conversations and dialogue.
If you’d like to use videos as a more focused learning method, FluentU is a language learning program that allows you to watch authentic videos in Spanish made by and for native speakers.
These videos all have expert-written, interactive subtitles that let you look up words while you watch.
You can search keywords in Spanish (such as infinitive verbs) in FluentU and find any videos that feature those words.
The program also has multimedia flashcards that let you review words in custom decks — giving you another way to study your infinitive verbs.
The infinitive is probably the easiest verb form to learn just from exposure. You don’t have to learn conjugations—only how these words work in sentences and the syntax around them.
If you’re exposed to native speech and writing, you’ll start noticing those patterns right away.
So if you need a break from studying the hundreds of forms that Spanish conjugations can take, perhaps some work with these nice, plain infinitives will seem relaxing.
See if you can use them in some sample sentences like the ones above, and stay alert to such instances of –ar, –er and –ir endings in constructions as you continue your Spanish adventure.