Recently I saw the following sentence in a dictionary, along with its English translation:

El pájaro salió volando antes de poder verlo bien.

The bird flew away before I could get a good look at it.

Is that how it works in Spanish? In all languages I came in contact with such infinitive could correspond only to a previous subject (el pájaro), but not a new, implied one (yo). I thought the only way to say that was something along the lines of:

…antes de que pueda verlo bien.

Is that dictionary example correct? If so, how is such a phenomenon called?


3 Answers 3


In his Diccionario de dudas y dificultades de la lengua española, when dealing with the use of the infinitive as a verbal noun (which is the case at issue, since the object of a preposition is always nominal, and “antes de” is a prepositional phrase), Manuel Seco says that, in such cases, the infinitive can have a subject of its own, just like a finite verb:

  • Al ponerse el sol, la sombra crece. (In this case, “el sol” is the subject of “ponerse”.)

The subject of the infinitive can also be the same as that of the main verb. This is the case with verb phrases:

  • Siempre he pensado volver a España. (The subject of “volver” is the same as that of “he pensado”.)

Sometimes, the subject of the infinitive is the direct object of the main verb (in this case, the infinitive is an object complement):

  • Te veo pasar todos los días. (The subject of “pasar” is “tú”, expressed in the objective case as “te”: Te veo mientras pasas.)

The only cases mentioned by Seco in which there is no subject are those where the subject is too general: Querer es poder, or those in which there is no interest in the subject: Carlos III mandó construir ese edificio. (It’s not important who was entrusted with the construction.*)

Then Seco says: En el caso de sujeto independiente, este va, prácticamente, siempre detrás del verbo (if there is an independent subject – in subjective case – this almost always appears after the verb: antes de poder yo atraparlo.) Seco then says that only rarely does the subject appear before the verb, and gives this example:

  • Por yo no saber nada, me sorprendieron.

My claim is that “antes de poder atraparlo” is a dangling infinitive which requires a specific subject to be fully grammatical.

  • This seems to confirm what I have read (and understood) here: hispanoteca.eu/Gram%C3%A1ticas/Gram%C3%A1tica%20espa%C3%B1ola/… Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 13:19
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    – Gustavson
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 13:53
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    This is a great answer. It's actually interesting to note that if you ask most speakers if you can say something para hacerlo yo they'll almost always say "no, you can't", and yet the evidence is pretty clear that all speakers will use such a structure and if they hear it context find it unremarkable. It's even clearer and commoner in Portuguese and Galician because they conjugate the infinitive for the person but not the tense (para fazer eu, para fazeres tu, para fazermos nós, etc) Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 14:50
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    Also for reference, the Nueva Gramática discusses it in 26.7 (especially 26.7f-g) Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 15:05
  • @guifa thank you for the info :) What year is the edition you are referring to? Mine from 2010 ends in 26.5.5 :( Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 17:08

What "poder atraparlo" is not

A dangling infinitive.

Section 26.7 of the Nueva Gramática shows examples like:

de haberlo sabido ella;
antes de llegar el cartero

Which are very similar to OP's sentence if we make the subject explicit:

antes de poder atraparlo yo.

These are called infinitive subordinates, and they are grammatically correct (definitely not "Tarzan speak" as some have said).

What "poder atraparlo" is, but has nothing to do whatsoever with the change in subject

A verbal periphrasis.

Indeed, "poder + verb" is one of the 140 periphrasis in Spanish, meaning "being able to" + verb. However, this fact is unrelated to the subject change you are asking about.

What the actual answer for the subject change is

A phenomenon called sujeto tácito (tacit subject) or sujeto elidido (elided subject), which is a form of ellipsis.

Yes, both the example and the translation are correct and, for native and non-native speakers alike, this can be confusing.

Take the following sentences:

El halcón estaba esperando a que el conejo saliese de su madriguera, pero se cansó de esperar.
El halcón salió volando antes de poder atraparlo.

Me fui acercando al halcón poco a poco con la red preparada, pero me oyó.
El halcón salió volando antes de poder atraparlo.

Yes, the two sentences in bold are exactly equal; and yet, their subjects and meaning are different.

The first one means "before the hawk could catch the rabbit":

antes de poder (el halcón) atraparlo
- subject (elided) = "el halcón"
- direct object = lo = "el conejo"

The second one means "before I could catch the hawk":

antes de poder (yo) atraparlo
- subject (elided) = "yo"
- direct object = lo = "el halcón"

The only way to tell the difference is the context.

  • In the first example, the subject for poder atraparlo is taken from the preceding sentence, which says the hawk was waiting to catch the rabbit. So the subject (not) being able to catch must be the hawk, and the object is the rabbit.
  • In the second example, the subject for poder atraparlo is taken from the preceding sentence too, which now says that I was waiting to catch the hawk with my net. So the subject (not) being able to catch must be me, and the object is the hawk.

This phenomenon is called sujeto tácito (also known as sujeto elidido), where the infinitive subordinate sentence does not have an explicit subject, and it must be inferred from the context. It does not have to be the same subject from the main sentence.
This is indeed a form of elipsis, a broader term which refers to the omission of part of a sentence, and the gist of it is the same in Spanish and English (see link above).

Notice that, without context, the subject could either be me, or us, or Elizabeth and her friends, or the hawk itself. Context is needed.
Is just happens that eliding the subject, especially when this subject is a pronoun, is way more common in Spanish compared to other languages (like English where the pronoun is mandatory) -- in fact, using "yo" at all in a sentence can be a telling sign that you are not a native speaker.
So, when the subject is elided and context is lacking, we tend to assume that the subject is the person speaking: thus "yo" (the one speaking) being assumed to be the subject of poder atraparlo, context not being enough to know otherwise.

Relevant sections of the Nueva Gramática: 26.7 and following; 33.4 and following; 41.11g; 26.11s; and some others referenced inside the book itself.

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    I'll check it, but I think the second infinitive is dangling and requires a subject, a passive, or a finite form: antes de que pudiera atraparlo.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 10:35
  • This also counts as ellipsis? Well, okay… thanks, this clarified a lot. Never seen such an ellipsis in any language… interesting! Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 11:27
  • @Gustavson please, be sure that you do! I'd be really interested to learn that :) Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 11:29
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    This is wrong. Is not an ellipsis. Is a perifrasis.
    – Billeeb
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 12:07
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    Check this: poder ellos atraparlo, poder nosotros atraparlo, poder ustedes atraparlo, poder tu atraparlo, poder él atraparlo. There's no right pronoun or subject for that cause is not a proper phrase (that's why is called parafrasis).
    – Billeeb
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 12:12

In the phrases you are using, the subject is the bird. There are two phrases joined by a conjunction called "elective conjunction" (antes).

Elective conjunctions join two different thoughts indicating that one pre-dates the other.

Beside that, in the second phrase you can see a thing that is called a "perífrasis". Is hard to explain it to someone that is not native speaker, but to make it short, a "perífrasis" is when a verb in infinitive acts as an auxiliar for another one (more or less) also in infinitive (not always mind you).

In this case the "poder"/"be able to" is working with the next verb "ver"/"to see", creating the perífrasis "to be able to see".

To relate it to the subject: "the bird", you use the pronoun "lo" (it) as a suffix in the end. And that is like:

poder ver lo -> poder verlo -> poderlo ver
those three mean "poder ver el pájaro"
to be able to see it --> to be able to see the bird

The answer above that states this is an ellipsis is not right, cause there is no piece of the phrases that was omitted: not the verb and not the subject (tacit).

So, a proper translation would be:

El pájaro salió volando antes de poder verlo bien.
The bird went flying before being able to see it well/properly.

  • @walen Because there is no context that would help up substitute "lo". If the bird was not seeing itself, then it would be just a reflexive structure. Billeeb, what you say makes perfect sense to me (more of a periphrasis than ellipsis indeed), but I wonder how come such an example was in a dictionary… Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 12:44
  • @walen While I well understand how infinitives refer back to previous subjects, I don't see how an infinitive can conjure up a new one where a finite form is possible. Btw, Billeeb, wouldn't a dangling infinitive be ambivalent in interpretation? Here it just only fits one verb and doesnt really fit anything else… Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 13:25
  • @walen I fail to see the subject change. Doesn't "verlo" replaces "que el pájaro lo vea bien", so it's still the same subject with undefined object? Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 16:08
  • @walen okay, thanks for the in-depth explanation. I think I will need further council, though, as I am still unsure how to bite that. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 17:56
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    OK, I rechecked and finally got the @Walen explanation. Yes, there is an ellipsis, there's a tacit subject before the periphrasis, but that is relatively normal in the periphrasis. The subject could be anyone if it's not contextualized.
    – Billeeb
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 11:35

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