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What is an infinitive in Spanish?

by Catherine Reynolds
Flamenco dancer in a courtyard in Spain

To feel confident speaking Spanish, you’ll have to learn a number of vocabulary and grammar rules. How you learn these rules is up to you—you can rely on rote memorization, or you can learn them naturally through immersion, which is how we teach them on Rosetta Stone

Whichever way you choose, you’ll encounter verbs in some form very early on in your learning. After all, you can’t put together a sentence without a verb

In many languages, we apply tenses to verbs to indicate when an action occurred and who or what is performing the action. For example, yo corro (“I run”) in Spanish is an action happening in the present first person, while yo corrí (“I ran”) is in the past first person. 

But before you dive into tense, you’ll need to know the base form of the verb, also known as the infinitive. In Spanish, you’ll learn how to manipulate the infinitive by adding endings to match each tense. Infinitives aren’t only an important part of building your Spanish vocabulary, but they’re also essential to building your foundation in Spanish grammar. 

Let’s take a closer look below at what an infinitive is and how they’re used.

What is an infinitive?

The infinitive form is the unconjugated or “non-personal” form of a verb. We call infinitives “non-personal” because they aren’t altered to match a first, second, or third person subject, like “I,” “you,” or “they.” In English, it’s easy to recognize infinitive verb forms, as they are always preceded by “to”: 

  • to become
  • to believe
  • to break

In Spanish, infinitive forms aren’t preceded by a preposition, but they’re still easy to spot. You’ll recognize infinitives by their three distinct verb endings: -AR, -ER, and -IR. For example: 

  • hablar = to speak
  • comer = to eat 
  • vivir = to live

Infinitives provide the base for conjugating verb forms, but they are also used as-is in everyday language! You can start using them as soon as you learn them with the tips below. 

How to use the infinitive in a sentence

While you may be accustomed to conjugating verbs, there are a few situations where the infinitive form can be used in a sentence.

1. As the subject of a sentence

A verb in the infinitive form can function as the subject of the sentence. When the infinitive functions as a noun, it is always treated as singular and masculine. Verbs for which an infinitive is the subject will be conjugated accordingly.

  • Correr es una gran manera de mantenerse en forma. = Running is a great way to stay in shape. 
  • Leer diariamente mantiene tu mente aguda. = Reading daily keeps your mind sharp. 
  • Cantar es su pasión. = Singing is her passion. 

Using the infinitive in Spanish is often equivalent to using the English gerund form of a verb, which ends in -ING. 

  • Estamos viendo una película antes de estudiar. = We’re watching a movie before studying.
  • Estos bocadillos son para comer. = These snacks are for eating.

The infinitive is also used with the common expression “me gustar.” Although a sentence like “Me gusta cantar” is translated as “I like to sing,” its literal translation is “Singing pleases me.” Since cantar is the subject of the sentence, it’s in the infinitive form. 

  • Les gusta jugar al tenis = They like to play tennis
  • Nos gusta cocinar = We like to cook.

2. After certain verbs

Just like in many other languages, the infinitive form in Spanish can be used directly following certain verbs.

There are various verbs that can be followed by an infinitive, but the one type is called a modal verb. Unlike auxiliary verbs which help form tenses (“I have seen the movie”), modal verbs have their own meanings that indicate how the speaker feels about an action (“I could see the movie”). These verbs express a variety of meanings, including the speaker’s ability, likeliness, or obligation to perform an action. 

  • Juan debe trabajar todos los dias. = Juan must work every day.
  • Puedo ir al cine hoy. = I can go to the movies today.

3. After a preposition

Similar to using the infinitive after a verb, infinitives can also be used after some prepositions.

  • sin = without
  • de = from
  • para  = for
  • antes de = before
  • después de = after

You’ll often see this construction used in sentences that feature a conjugated verb followed by the preposition and finally the infinitive form of a verb.

  • antes de acostarme = before going to bed
  • estaba cansada de leer = she was tired of reading

4. As a command

Another common usage of the infinitive form is as a command or an instruction. Written instructions, like recipes, and signs sometime use the infinitive form to give commands. Note that while these appear frequently in writing, they are not commonly used in speech.

  • Incorporar las claras de huevo = fold in the egg whites
  • No aparcar = No parking

5. To form other tenses (future and conditional)

Finally, you’ll see the infinitive form when you’re creating the future tense! Unlike conjugating for other tenses, the future tense does not require you to drop the ending off a verb. Instead, to create the future tense simply take the infinitive form of a verb with é added to the end!

  • Él hablará con su madre. = He will talk to his mother.

You can also use the infinitive to form the periphrastic future tense, using a verb phrase to talk about actions in the future. In English you can think of this as “going to” do something. To create this tense, use the verb ir followed by the infinitive.

  • Ella va a ser astronauta. = She’s going to be an astronaut.

Must-know Spanish infinitives

Now that you know how to use them, here’s a quick list of the infinitives you’re most likely to come across, both in speech and in writing. And when you’re ready to move on to conjugation, check out our guides that break down tenses by verb type: 

Most common infinitive verbs (all endings)

serTo be (permanent quality)
estarTo be (emotion, location, temporary state)
tenerTo have
hacerTo do / to make
decirTo say / to tell
deberShould / to owe
irTo go
verTo see
parecerTo seem
darTo give

Most common -ER verbs

aprenderTo learn
beberTo drink
comerTo eat
conocerTo know
correrTo run
crecerTo grow
creerTo believe
entenderTo understand
leerTo read
quererTo want / to love

Most common -AR verbs

llamarTo call / to name
hablarTo talk / to speak
mirarTo look
escucharTo hear
comprarTo buy 
necesitarTo need / to require
llevarTo carry / to take / to wear
usarTo use
ayudarTo help
cambiarTo change

Most common -IR verbs

escribirTo write
recibirTo receive
permitirTo allow
abrirTo open
subirTo go up
decidirTo decide
asistirTo attend
consumirTo consume
definirTo define
describirTo describe

Understand the nuances of Spanish

With over 42 million Spanish speakers worldwide, the language can vary a bit from region to region. But, these 5 grammatical rules generally hold true no matter who you’re talking to. 

The good news is if you’re knowledgeable about another romance language, Spanish can be a bit easier to learn than other languages. Romance languages often share similar pronunciation or spelling of words. 

And, now that you know the basics of the infinitive form, you’re ready to expand your Spanish verb vocabulary! Understanding the conjugation patterns for regular -AR, -ER, and -IR verbs is a great place to start. Or, if you’re looking for a challenge you can start to familiarize yourself with irregular Spanish verbs.

Take your Spanish to the next level

Looking for more language learning tips? Start by learning basic words and phrases, reviewing the essential basics for learning Spanish, or exploring Oaxaca, Mexico through everyday conversations. Rosetta Stone can help you learn a language faster and more confidently than you would if you studied on your own.

With Rosetta Stone, you’ll learn Spanish naturally with a unique immersive approach to learning. Bite-sized lessons help you learn at your own pace, and the Rosetta Stone app lets you do it all on the go. Plus, you’ll have the option to choose between Latin American or European Spanish to ensure you master the right nuances of each dialect! 

Ready to jump right in? Start your first lesson today at rosettastone.com.

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