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Review of  Infinitivo y sujeto en portugués y español [Infinitive and Subject in Portuguese and Spanish]

Reviewer: Timothy Gupton
Book Title: Infinitivo y sujeto en portugués y español [Infinitive and Subject in Portuguese and Spanish]
Book Author: Clara Vanderschueren
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): Portuguese
Issue Number: 25.725

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The introductory chapter presents the two main phenomena in Spanish and Portuguese under consideration in this monograph: 1) inflected infinitives (InfFl), which only exist in Portuguese, and 2) infinitives with overt subjects (IcS), which exist in both Spanish and Portuguese. These infinitive constructions normally appear in adverbial contexts introduced by a prepositional connector -- the focus of Vanderscheuren’s book -- in particular, adverbials preceded by ‘antes de’ (before), ‘ao/al’ (upon), ‘depois/después de’ (after), ‘para’ ((in order) to), ‘por’ (for), and ‘sem/sin’ (without). One of the stated goals of the study is to characterize the factors determining the variation between inflected and uninflected infinitives in Portuguese. The second is to shed light on what factors influence the status of infinitives with lexically overt subjects in Spanish and Portuguese via an extensive empirical analysis. The comparative nature of the study seeks to discover subtle differences in the use(s) of these ostensibly identical structures, and to find out what these reveal about the fundamental differences between the grammars vis à vis the status of the infinitive. While the study guiding this monograph takes a general cognitive-functional approach, the author seeks to arrive at conclusions that are amenable to a variety of theoretical approaches. The author also explains the basics of other guiding principles such as economy, iconicity, and prototipicity, stating that these inform the gradations between grammatical categories in each respective language relevant for this study of the syntax-semantics interface. The study utilizes written registers (journalistic and novels) of Peninsular Spanish and Portuguese corpora, thus avoiding varieties in which infinitive constructions are either less frequent (e.g. Brazilian Portuguese) or more frequent (e.g. Caribbean Spanish) than in their respective Peninsular norms. Corpus analyses of inflected infinitives in Portuguese were supplemented by results from a self-paced reading task.

Chapter One: “The infinitive”

The first chapter examines the much-debated syntactic and functional status of infinitives in Spanish and Portuguese. In the first section, the author presents the justification underlying the perception that infinitives are defective forms. Putting aside Portuguese inflected infinitives, it is shown that although infinitives often have a semantically-specified subject, they are not anchored to tense or to particular discourse participants, both of which are reflected in morphological agreement deficiencies in infinitive forms. In both cases, these deficiencies are dependent on other clausal elements that provide a personal (subject, direct object, or indirect object) or temporal/modal reference point. In the second section, the author examines the reasoning behind why infinitives have been analyzed as “verbal nouns” in the literature -- somewhere between the verb and noun poles. She effectively demonstrates the classificatory limitations inherent in a definition according to functional as well as semantic-conceptual criteria, in the end concluding that infinitives are less prototypical verbs that may behave more or less as verbs and more or less as nouns. She proposes a four-point continuum to capture these characteristics, but insists, however, that there are no neat boundaries between these points and that there are many more possibilities along the continuum than the four-point spectrum would suggest.

Chapter Two: “The subject”

As the notion of ‘subject’ is central to the monograph, the second chapter examines the theoretical difficulties related to descriptions of subjects in the literature. The author starts with defining the term ‘subject’, which is far from the discrete, universal notion often described within the traditional European perspective. She cites a number of language typologists who have shown that subjects are only found in a portion of the world’s languages. There is cross-linguistic variation with respect to the degree to which the subject morphologically agrees with the verb, as well as the degree to which the syntactic position of the subject is fixed. She correctly illustrates that the notion of subject is not only problematic cross-linguistically, but also within languages, citing the well-known cases of (a certain sub-class of) psychological verbs in languages like Spanish (e.g. ‘gustar’, ‘interesar’, ‘sorprender’), which select an indirect object experimenter. These verbs differ from language to language, even in the case of cognate verb forms which share a common root, as in the case of Spanish ‘gustar’ and Portuguese ‘gostar’. She also notes other problematic constructions such as existential constructions (formed with ‘há/hay’), which often exhibit defective verb paradigms and passive constructions, in which the verb morphologically agrees with the theme or patient, and not the agent -- a construction which often appears to convert an object into a grammatical subject. Given these difficulties of classification, the author suggests that the category of ‘subject’ is a prototype with certain morphosyntactic, pragmatic, semantic, and cognitive properties. More or less prototypical exemplars of the category exist, and multiple continua of protypicality exist between the category of subject and other grammatical categories such as direct and indirect objects.

Chapter Three: “Adverbial subordinates”

This chapter bears great similarity with the previous two, as the author argues that not only is the concept of ‘subordinate clause’ problematic, but that ‘adverbial subordinate’ is as well. This is due to the heterogeneous nature of these constructions, which exhibit a greater or lesser degree of linkedness to the main clause. Additionally, she argues that the degree of syntactic autonomy reflects the degree of semantic-conceptual autonomy. In this chapter, the author examines each of the six adverbial connectors under investigation that precede infinitives in Spanish and Portuguese: ‘antes de’ (before), ‘ao/al’ (upon), ‘depois/después de’ (after), ‘para’ ((in order) to), ‘por’ (for), and ‘sem/sin’ (without). In turn, she shows that each of these displays different combinatory behaviors (e.g. with infinitives and/or finite verbs, selection of subjunctive or indicative), and that each exhibits uses that are more or less “integrated” into the main clause. In the end, the general tendency is that when infinitives are used, there is a stronger link to the main clause.

Chapter Four: “Plan: the adverbial infinitive with overt subject in Spanish and Portuguese”

Chapter Four is a brief pause in which the author lays out the goals of the subsequent chapters and formally states many of the research questions guiding the study in this monograph. Among these are the following: 1) Do Portuguese inflected infinitives behave comparatively more like prototypical finite verbs than infinitives with subjects?, 2) Do Spanish infinitives behave more like nouns?, 3) Do subjects of infinitives possess the semantic features typical of subjects of finite verbs?, 4) Given that Spanish subjects of infinitives appear to behave (formally) less typically, what type(s) of subjects accompany them and what are the indicators of less typical subjects?, 5) Given the diversity present in adverbial subordinate clauses, what differences are present among these structures?, 6) Does this diversity influence the selection of inflected or uninflected infinitives in Portuguese in cases of coreference between the subject of main and subordinate clauses?, 7) Do the two languages behave differently with respect to the use of subjects of (uninflected) infinitives with the six different adverbial connectors?, and 8) Are there differences present when the same (cognate) connector is used?

Chapter Five: “The Portuguese inflected infinitive: new perspectives for an old problem”

Chapter Five reformulates the puzzle regarding the apparent optionality between inflected and uninflected Portuguese infinitives, restating the fact that previous analyses, which have used a variety of terms to capture this as phenomenon, such as ‘the personal infinitive’, or as ‘the conjugated infinitive’, have shed little light on this issue. The author reviews the contexts in which inflected infinitives have been claimed to be obligatory as well as those in which it appears to display free variation. She then introduces the variables suspected of conditioning the use of InfFl forms, which are first analyzed via monofactorial statistical methods. The three principal underlying factors are autonomy of the verb form from the main clause, the degree of ‘verbiness’, and the interpretive accessibility of the subject of the subordinate clause subject. The statistical results suggest that pronominal verbs, periphrastic constructions and the presence of negation all favor the use of an InfFl. Following the monofactorial analysis, the author combines all of the categorical variables into a multifactorial statistical analysis via logistic regression in order to determine which variables have comparatively greater impact in favoring the choice of an InfFl. The relative impact of these factors, from greatest to least, is as follows: pronominal verb > periphrastic construction > governing head > connector type > dynamicity > negation > lexical aspect > preposed/parenthetical position > pause (among those postposed). The first conclusion is that whenever one considers contexts in which both inflected and uninflected forms compete, inflected forms are not as frequent as it is often claimed. Also, more autonomous clauses bear greater similarity to prototypical independent clauses. Additionally, more overt verbal markings found in InfFl forms (e.g. periphrasis, pronominal forms, and negation) and markings of decreased semantic ‘verbiness’ with less dynamic verbs signal that the subordinate clause verb is the autonomous center of its clause. It is also found that decreased accessibility of the subject of the main clause entails greater autonomy for the infinitive clause, and this indirectly implies a status nearer to that of an independent clause.

The subsequent section of the chapter centers on the experimental psycholinguistic task designed to test the cognitive predictions of Vesterinen (2006, 2011). To inform questions of cognitive processing, Venderschueren conducted a computer-based Self-paced Reading Task (SRT) with 61 native Portuguese-speaking participants, ages 17 to 73, who were affiliated with the University of Lisbon using Tscope C Library to measure reading times to provide a window on cognitive effort required for comprehension of the stimuli. The statistical results suggest that inflected forms can contribute to a faster and easier interpretation of a subject of an infinitive that runs the risk of decreasing in accessibility due to length of the sentence in question; however, the author notes that this also depends on other factors that influence subject accessibility. Only one accessibility-reducing factor displayed positive effects when coupled with an inflected infinitive: distance. Therefore, it appears that the greater the distance of the infinitive from the main clause verb, the more advantageous the effect of the inflected infinitive. Inflected infinitives, then, provide a cognitive advantage related to accessibility such that InfFl forms facilitate processing in longer, more complex sentences in which the subject of the infinitive becomes less easily interpreted.

Chapter Six: “The infinitive with a lexical subject: a comparative study”

Chapter Six compares structures involving an infinitive accompanied by an overt subject in both Spanish and Portuguese. The first section of the chapter is a comprehensive literature review of these structures in Portuguese and Spanish from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Despite the apparently little consensus, there are common threads among researchers. The first is that the structure is comparatively more widespread in Portuguese. The second is that adverbial infinitives accompanied by an IcS, which are found in both Spanish and Portuguese, imply a certain level of syntactic-semantic autonomy.

The empirical corpus study in the remainder of the chapter is comparative, seeking to determine if verbs in IcS constructions in Portuguese behave more like prototypical verbs than their Spanish counterparts. The prediction is that Portuguese IcS constructions will be more clause-like -- not only the verbs in question, but also the subjects of these infinitives. Therefore, they will be more like finite clauses and appear in a greater variety of constructions than in Spanish. It is also predicted that Portuguese IcSs will be less likely to exhibit nominal status than Spanish. The analysis in this chapter is exclusively monofactorial, and does not include a multifactorial analysis via logistical regression, since, in the author’s view, a model predicting whether a certain IcS constructions will be Spanish or Portuguese has little theoretical value.

The data show that a number of factors come to bear on IcS constructions in both languages -- and in a rather complex fashion. These are the clausality of the construction, four key ‘subfactors’ (i.e. ‘verbiness’, subjectivity, complexity, and autonomy), and (semantic) adverbial influence. According to predictions, Portuguese IcS constructions display greater variability and allow for more possibilities than Spanish IcS constructions. However, the semantics of the prepositional connector is crucial in this choice. In IcSs with temporal adverbials (e.g. ‘antes de’, ‘depois/después de’, and ‘ao/al’), Portuguese subjects and verbs display more characteristic behaviors of subjects and verbs, respectively, display greater internal complexity, and exhibit a more complete clausal structure than their Spanish analogues. The same is found for IcSs with adverbial constructions formed with ‘por’ and ‘sem/sin’; however, since most of these constructions are formed with state predicates, whose subjects tend to be emphatic in both languages, fewer differences were attested than predicted. The appearance of Spanish IcS subjects in postverbal position is claimed to be a reflex of reduced clausal structure in IcS constructions. IcS constructions with ‘al’ are found to be much more frequent and productive in Spanish than with ‘ao’ in Portuguese, which tends to avoid the construction altogether. This is claimed to be related to the greater ‘nouniness’ of the Spanish IcS construction and the greater ‘verbiness’ of the Portuguese construction. The relative ‘nouniness’ of the Spanish construction is claimed to account for the fact that subjects of IcS constructions appear in postverbal position, similar to the default position for nominal modifiers (e.g. adjectives) in Spanish. Therefore, the unmarked subject position for IcS constructions in Spanish is postverbal despite the fact that it is the marked position with finite predicates in general. As Portuguese constructions (those with ‘ao’ aside) tend to be comparatively more verbal in nature, subjects of Portuguese IcS constructions tend to appear in preverbal position.


This monograph is refreshingly complete and thorough, and achieves its stated goals. The author has succeeded in creating a work that is amenable to a variety of theoretical approaches. One of its strongest points -- its remarkably broad and deep literature review -- is unfortunately one of its chief disadvantages with respect to readability, as it occasionally gets mired in explaining the underpinnings of theoretical concerns whose import is not always readily ascertainable. As this reviewer’s training is primarily generative in orientation, I can accept some of the blame for this. In the end, however, there is no question that this monograph significantly advances our knowledge of the syntax-semantics interface with respect to infinitive constructions in Spanish and Portuguese.

The Portuguese analysis is particularly well justified, since the findings of the corpus analysis are tested by experimental methods based on the corpus. It is refreshing that an experimental monograph should include not only its methodology in its entirety in the 32-page appendices (something that colleagues of mine and I have advocated for), but also concise explanations of all of the statistical methods employed in the statistical analyses. Such an approach welcomes and encourages further scientific exploration and falsification. The author astutely suggests potential future avenues such as oral production, online measures (e.g. eye-tracking), and additional sociolinguistic corpora studies. Given the existence of similar infinitive constructions in varieties of Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas, I imagine that it will not be long before this methodology is replicated in one or more of these ways. It is refreshing that a 21st century linguistics monograph appear in Spanish, although this seems a somewhat arbitrary choice given that much of the data presented and discussed comes from Portuguese. While this is a welcome addition to the literature on infinitive constructions, I sincerely hope that the publication of this work in Spanish does not limit its accessibility.

This monograph will be of primary interest to linguistic researchers around the world working on Spanish and Portuguese – both Peninsular and non-Peninsular varieties. Within the Hispanic and Lusophone worlds, it will be informative for studies of similar cross-linguistic phenomena and as a case study in methodological design. For better or worse, I do not think the import or appeal of this monograph will be properly appreciated beyond academia. This book will likely have limited use as a textbook, excepting special cases such as advanced graduate-level seminars with Spanish (or perhaps Portuguese) as the language of instruction. As I have discussed previously, this book’s appeal lies in the fact that its experimental methodology and conclusions can inform syntactic and semantic studies from a variety of theoretical paradigms.


Vesterinen, Rainer. 2006. Subordinação adverbial -- um estudo cognitivo sobre o infinitivo, o clítico SE e as formas verbais finitas em proposições adverbiais do Português europeu. Stockholm: University of Stockholm dissertation.

Vesterinen, Rainer. 2011. A cognitive approach to adverbial subordination in European Portuguese. The infinitive, the clitic pronoun SE and finite verbal forms. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Timothy Gupton, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Spanish Syntax at University of Georgia. He is particularly interested in the syntax of the preverbal field, the interaction of information structure with narrow syntax, and the insight that experimental measures can provide on monolingual and multilingual competence.