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I was reading a children's book in Spanish and came across the following expression.

¡A comer! ¡La sopa está lista!

The translation given was

Time to eat! the soup is ready!

Why does ¡A comer! mean time to eat?

Can I use this construct elsewhere?

How can I use it correctly?

For example

¡A jugar! Time to play.

¡A salir! Time to leave.

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This phrase, a + infinitive, is used generally to let someone know it's time to do something, or to call someone to order, or as a mere imperative. The exact meaning depends on the context.

  • ¡A jugar! = "Time to play." OR "Let's play." OR "Now, play!"
  • ¡A comer! = "Come and eat!" OR "Time to eat."
  • ¡A callarse! = "Be silent!" OR "Now let's be silent."

Although I haven't been able to find a source for this, it looks like it could be short for ir a + infinitive, i.e. the periphrastic future tense, interpreted as an order or an exhortation. In effect you'd be saying "Now we're going to...", with the meaning of "Now you must..." or "Now that you're allowed, go and...":

  • Y ahora, a escuchar. = "And now (we're going to) listen."
  • A comer, que ya es tarde. = "(We're going) to eat, since it already got late."
  • ¡A jugar! = "Go and play!"
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The "a + infinitive" construction is a way to ask for a given action to be done. You can read about this construction if paragraphs 42.5p and 42.5q of the Spanish Gramática. There it is said that those expressions belong to the colloquial Spanish. Many of the examples of this construction are characterized by their expeditious tone:

A callar y a tus cosas, metomentodo.
¡A ordeñar las ovejas, ya!
¡A callar todos!

Nonetheless, they are also used in contexts where something is just recommended:

A dormir, mujer. Mañana lo acompañaremos al tren.

They are also used in vehement invitations to perform some activity, often pleasant:

¡A bailar, a bailar!
¡A vivir que son dos días!
¡A disfrutar se ha ido, a pasarlo bien!

Sometimes the invitation is not pleasant at all:

¡A jorobarse tocan y punto en boca!

You can even try this as a farewell in a colloquial letter or conversation:

A seguir bien.

I would say that these constructions often come from more elaborated sentences where an initial verb is omitted, although it's not always easy to know what verb has been omitted (if it exists at all):

¡Venid a comer! ¡La sopa está lista!
¡Ponte a ordeñar las ovejas, ya!
¡Vamos a vivir, que son dos días!

In your example, a comer can be translated as time to play because of the lunch times, but you cannot always use the "time to..." construction to translate. In the "a ordeñar las ovejas, ya" example I would translate that as "go milk the sheep", the "a callar" would be something like "shut up", as an order. You have to undertand the context and what the speaker really meant in order to give a proper translation for the sentence.

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  • And don't forget the famous battle cry ¡a la carga mis valientes!
    – ipp
    Nov 16 '19 at 16:37

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