What Is Inflection in the Spanish Language?

Both English and Spanish are moderately inflected

running in the surf
El surfista corre en las olas después de surfear. (The surfer runs in the surf after surfing.).

Martin Garrido / Creative Commons.

Inflection is the change in the form of a word that affects its grammatical usage or category, such as changing its part of speech or making it singular or plural.

Both English and Spanish are moderately inflected in that they use inflection much less than some languages but much more than others. Greek and Russian are examples of highly inflected languages. Chinese is an example of a language that has little inflection. In general, word order tends to be more important in languages that have more inflection. You can see how this plays out in English and Spanish: Spanish, the more inflected language, primarily through verb conjugation, also requires more attention to word order.

How English and Spanish Inflections Are Similar

In both English and Spanish, the most common way to inflect a word is by adding an ending. For example, in both languages an -s or -es can be to a regularly inflected noun to make it plural. Thus "wall" and pared are singular, while "walls" and paredes are plural.

It is also common in both languages to use suffixes to change to change its part of speech. For example, suffixes frequently used to turn adjectives to nouns are -dad in Spanish and "-ness" in English. So feliz becomes felicidad, turning "happy" into "happiness."

Both languages have irregular verbs and occasionally change the stem (the base word) rather than add a suffix. For example, "taught" is a form of "teach," and diciendo (saying) is a form of decir (to say).

It is possible for a language to be inflected through the use of prefixes, but neither Spanish nor English use them to change a word's grammatical function. Prefixes are used instead to change meaning, such as by using the prefixes pre- and "pre-" to change the time of a verb's action.

How English and Spanish Inflections Are Different

Among the inflections that are different in the two languages are:

  • Spanish inflects for gender for numerous nouns and adjectives, usually by adding an -a ending to the feminine form or changing the the ending to include an a for the feminine. (In Spanish, the base form of nouns and adjectives, the form listed in dictionaries, is masculine.) English doesn't have gendered adjectives, and only a few nouns (such as "actor" and "actress") have gendered forms.
  • English has limited use of inflection of verbs, known as conjugation, primarily using "-d" or "-ed" for regular verbs for the past tense and adding "-ing" to form the gerund. Spanish, on the other hand, inflects verbs extensively to indicate tense, mood, and person. In English, most regular verbs have three or four possible conjugated forms, while Spanish verbs have more than 50.
  • English inflects nouns by adding an apostrophe and "s" to indicate possession, while Spanish has no such inflection, using the preposition de instead.

Examples of Inflection

Inflected differences are shown in boldface:

  • Tengo un coche rojo. Tengo dos coches rojos. (I have a red car. I have two red cars.)
  • Pablo es actor. Ana es actriz. (Pablo is an actor. Ana is an actress.)
  • Samuel es abogado. Katarina es abogada. (Samuel is a lawyer. Katarina is a lawyer.)
  • Abre la ventana. Le gusta ventanear. (She is opening the window. She likes being by the window.)
  • Soy rico. Si fuera rico, compraría otro coche. (I am rich. If I were rich, I would buy another car.)
  • Como carne. Comí la carne. (I eat meat. I ate the meat.)
  • La mujer está feliz. Las mujeres están felices. (The woman is happy. The women are happy.)
  • Corre cada día. Le gusta correr. (He runs daily. He likes running.)

Another Meaning for ‘Inflection’

There is also a second meaning for "inflection." It can refer to how words are stressed or given tone. For example, questions in English and Spanish are often inflected in raising the tone at the end of a sentence.

Inflection is known as either inflexión (change of voice) or flexión (grammatical change) in Spanish.

Key Takeaways

  • Inflection in the grammatical sense is the change of a word to affect its grammatical use.
  • The most common type of inflection Spanish and English share is the addition of an "-s" or "-es" to make nouns plural.
  • Conjugation, which is extensive in Spanish, refers to the inflection of verbs.