What is this phrase en explorar in the following sentence?

Los primeros europeos en explorar la región del actual Illinois fueron misioneros franceses.

I would have thought you would say que exploraron, if the intended meaning is "The first europeans to explore...".

The construction seems to be en + [infinitive]. Is this correct? Can you provide other examples where "en" is used in a similar way?

  • I wasn't sure what tag to use, so I went with the most general I could think of.
    – Jack M
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 23:21

2 Answers 2


Remember that in Spanish, the infinitive form of a verb is used when the verb is used as a noun, where as in English, it is often used in the gerund form. Thus, the sentence translates to English as:

The first Europeans in exploring the current region of Illinois were French missionaries.

Your suggestion of que exploraron would be valid, too, but changes the nature of the phrase slightly.

  • I'm not sure I understand your "verb as a noun" comment. In your english translation, I don't think the gerund is really being thought of as a noun, it's just a tense indicating an ongoing action, and "in" basically means "during".
    – Jack M
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 10:21
  • 1
    @JackM: Read more here. English has the same construct as Spanish, too--that is to use the infinitive ('to explore'), but has more diversity than Spanish in this regard. In English one can say, for instance, "Swimming is fun" as well as "To swim is fun." In Spanish, only "Nadar es divertido" is accepted and "Nadando es divertido" is non-grammatical.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 16:28
  • @Flimzy: using the infinitive and the -ing form in English is slightly different. An English teacher of mine used this example: I like to work but I don't like working.
    – Gorpik
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 8:00

In my opinion, the en preposition would translate to something along the lines of

The first Europeans to be involved in the exploration of.....

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