Using Infinitives as Nouns

Infinitives Can Function as Subject, Predicate or Object

Prohibido botar basura
Prohibido botar basura. (Dumping garbage prohibited.) Sign is from Navidad, Chile. Photo by Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel; licensed via Creative Commons.

The infinitive is the most basic of the verb forms. Unlike the conjugated verb forms — the ones used most often in speech — an infinitive standing alone says nothing about how many people are performing the verb's action or when.

In Spanish, the infinitive is the verb form that appears in dictionaries. The infinitive always has one of three endings: -ar, -er or -ir. Standing alone, the infinitive is usually translated to English as "to" followed by the verb. For example, ver is usually translated as "to see," hablar as "to speak." But as we shall soon see, in sentences the Spanish infinitive can be translated a number of ways.

In this lesson, we look at instances where the infinitive functions as a noun. When used as a noun, the Spanish infinitive is always masculine and almost always singular. Like other nouns, it can be the subject of a sentence, a predicate nominative (usually a noun that follows a form of "to be" or ser) or the object of a verb or preposition. The infinitive noun sometimes retains the characteristics of a verb; it sometimes is modified by an adverb rather than an adjective and can sometimes have objects. It is often translated into the English gerund (the "-ing" form of the verb). Here are some examples of the infinitive being used as a noun:

  • As a subject: Nadar es el mejor remedio para el dolor de espalda. Swimming is the best remedy for a backache.
  • As a subject: Es prohibido botar basura. (Dumping garbage is prohibited.) (Note: In Spanish, unlike English, it isn't unusual for the subject to follow the verb.)
  • As a subject: El beber puede conducir a la intoxicación e incluso a la muerte. Drinking can lead to poisoning and even death.
  • As a subject: No me gusta cocinar. I don't like to cook.(Note: Literally, the sentence would be translated as "cooking doesn't please me.")
  • As a predicate nominative: La vida es un abrir y cerrar de los ojos. Life is an opening and closing of the eyes.
  • As a predicate nominative: La intimidad es un hablar honesto y profundo de lo que se siente y se piensa. Intimacy is speaking sincerely and deeply about what one feels and thinks.
  • As the object of a verb: Yo preferiría salir. I would prefer to leave.
  • As the object of a verb: Odio estudiar algo que creo que no necesito. I hate studying something I believe I don't need.
  • As the object of a verb: Te vi andar entre los árboles. I saw you walking among the trees.
  • As the object of a preposition: Pienso de salir contigo. I'm thinking about leaving with you.
  • As the object of a preposition: Ten moderación en el comer o el beber. Show moderation in eating or drinking.
  • As the object of a preposition: Al entrar al Sistema de Salud, usted y su empresa recibirán enormes beneficios. Upon entering the Health System, you and your business will receive great benefits.

As you may notice, the definite article el (or the contraction al) is not consistently used with the noun infinitive. It is most often used in certain set phrases and following some prepositions. When an infinitive is the subject of the sentence, the el is often optional; when it is used, it can give the sentence a more personal or informal sound.