Using Spanish infinitives is like opting for basic vanilla instead of triple chocolate.
It’s like dancing bachata without spins, or sticking with the trusty old margarita pizza.
Infinitives are the plain, basic forms of verbs—but they’re also highly useful to know about.
You might also see them scrawled across the board and at the front of a Spanish classroom, underlined with lists of conjugations underneath. Taking on Spanish means absorbing tons of such conjugations.
But what about that simple, unconjugated infinitive form of the verb itself? Don’t we ever get to use that?
Listen to any Spanish conversation and you’re bound to hear plenty of uses of the infinitive before long. They help us talk in general terms about what actions are like, what we want, what we hate doing and things that must be done.
In more complex sentences, they follow prepositions to communicate all kinds of information about when and how things are happening. And you’ll even see them in all their simple, unadorned glory on signs.
Does that sound like a lot to handle?
Maybe, but it’s all a lot easier when we can divide the uses of Spanish infinitives up into a few manageable categories. This post will do just that. But first, let’s meet these infinitive guys and see what they are exactly.
What Are Spanish Infinitive Verbs?
Spanish infinitives always end in –ar, –er or –ir. As noted above, they’re what you see listed in a dictionary. These always correspond to an English verb preceded by “to.” For example:
- 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.
Spanish Infinitive Verbs: 5 Usual Uses of Spanish’s Most Vanilla Verb Form
1. Spanish infinitives as nouns
Infinitives come in handy when you want to talk about an action in a general way. Note that in English, in such cases we would often use a gerund (a noun made from a verb ending in “-ing”) instead. For example:
- Estudiar español es interesante. — Studying Spanish is interesting.
- Jugar ajedrez es divertido. — Playing chess is fun.
- Saber procede 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 taking some “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.” That blank there is the subject again, and you can use an infinitive 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 actions do you like doing? What activities are interesting? You can explain them with the above constructions.
2. Spanish infinitives after certain conjugated verbs
Spanish infinitives can also function as objects. That is, they can follow a verb and grammatically be considered the thing being acted on.
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.
- Disfruto nadar. — I enjoy swimming.
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.
- Insiste en hablar. — He insists on speaking.
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.
3. Spanish infinitives after prepositions
Prepositions can of course also show up in Spanish without any verb before them. And what do you do when you want to put a verb after the preposition? You guessed it, you’ll want 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.
4. 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!)
5. Written signs with the Spanish infinitive
If you’ve learned the command forms (imperative mood) of verbs, you’ve probably wondered why you then see written signs in Spanish without those forms.
In particular, 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 on signs it’s quite common to just use the infinitive. This use is pretty easy to deal with. It just expresses the general idea that the action of the verb shouldn’t be happening here.
So if you need a break from studying the hundreds of forms that Spanish conjugations can take, perhaps some work with these lovely, 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.
Sometimes vanilla can give you quite enough to talk about.
As usual, Mose Hayward wrote this post on the road—this time in the Madrid airport. He lives and works out of the perfect wheeled carry-on backpack.
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