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.

Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel/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 or things 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.

Infinitives Can Fill Most Roles of Nouns

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).

Infinitives used as nouns are always masculine and singular. Some infinitives can become nouns in their own right when they are made plural, however. For example, seres humanos (from ser, to be) refers to human beings.

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 that 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. 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 moderation 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.)

Using the Definite Article El With Infinitives

As you may notice, the definite article el is not consistently used with the noun infinitive. Although there are no hard and fast rules, here are some guidelines.

  • A very common way of using el is as part of the contraction al, for a + el. It typically as the meaning of "on" or "upon" meaning "at the time of": Al encontrar a mis padres biológicos logré una estabilidad. (I found some stability upon finding my biological parents.)
  • El is usually used when the infinitive is modified by an adjective or a phrase acting as an adjective: El respirar rápido puede ser causado por varios desordenes. (Rapid breathing can be caused by various disorders.)
  • The article is option in many situations, but when it is used it may give the sentence a more personal or informal sound.

Key Takeaways

  • Infinitives often function as singular masculine nouns.
  • As nouns, infinitives can act as subjects or predicates of sentences as well as objects of verbs and prepositions.
  • The most common translations of infinitives as nouns to English are "to + verb" and "verb + "-ing."