Spanish Verbs and Structures That Can Be Used to Express Obligation

In Spanish language we frequently have various grammatical options to express one single idea. In the particular case of expressing obligation it also happens, and it is important for us to learn those grammatical structures that can be used to express this idea. The choice is sometimes context dependent, since each one of the options has its own particularity and different nuance, and some of these structures are occasionally used incorrectly, as we will see in this article. It is important to know grammar and its rules, in order to speak correctly, and avoid confusion in communication.

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Tener que + infinitivo – have to + infinitive

When we utter tener que in Spanish, the meaning is equal to must. Please notice that the meaning of the verb changes, since the meaning of the verb tener is to have.

This way, when your mother says:  ¡Tienes que ordenar tu habitación! – She means: You have to order your room!

Tienes que probar la paella de mi madre. – It is likely that you hear this utterance frequently if you come to Spain, especially to the east coast of the country, where paella is a typical meal. It means that “you have to taste/try the paella my mother prepares.”

¡Tenemos que irnos! – We must go!

Uses of the Verb Deber for Obligation and Probability

Deber + infinitivo – have to + infinitive

Deber must match the person and number, and it is followed by an infinitive, as in this example:

Debes comportarte bien. – You have to behave properly.
Debemos estudiar mucho para sacar buenas notas. – We have to study a lot in order to get good grades.

The meaning of the verb deber is equal to must, or to have to, but sometimes it has another meaning, when we place de between it and another verb in infinitive:

Deber de + infinitivo – in this structure its meaning switches to it must have been or probably.

¿Por qué no ha venido María? Debe de haber pasado algo. – Why is Maria not here? Something must have happened.
Debe de ser un error, mi examen estaba muy bien. – There has to be a mistake, my exam was very good.

Sometimes you may see deber de instead of deber, this use is not correct, but some people use it this way in order not to make an direct order, and they do not know that it is not correct.

Haber de + infinitivo – have to + infinitive: You have to do something / Ought to do something

This grammatic structure is usually used in written language or in formal spoken language. Although, it is likely that you hear someone say it even in informal o colloquial contexts.

The grammatic formula for the correct way of uttering it is:

Has de + infinitivo – have to + infinitive:

Has de leer mucho para mejorar tu vocabulario. – You have to read a lot in order to improve your vocabulary. In this case, we have to match the verb haber with the person and number of the subject, although the pronoun of the subject is frequently omitted.

(Yo) he de hacer – I have to do (I ought to do something)
(Nosotros) hemos de saber – We ought to know
(Ellos) han de venir – They have to come (Ought to come)

Subjunctive Mode to Express Obligation

As a Spanish language student, you are probably already familiar with the subjunctive mode and all the different contexts it can be used in. Expressing obligation is one of the fields where we can use this verb mode. Once again, we have to match the number and person of the verb.

Es + adjetivo + subjuntivo – Verb ser + adjective + subjunctive

Es necesario que seas puntual – It is necessary that you arrive on time.

Please notice that when we place que (that) after an adjective, the verb mode that follows must be subjunctive.

You can take a look at this article to learn more about the subjunctive mode in Spanish.

Grammatic Constructions to Express Impersonal Obligation

We decide to use impersonal obligation when we want to communicate someone to do something without uttering a direct order, or when we are addressing a group of people and we want to mitigate the discourse.

Hay que + infinitivo – It is required + infinitive.

Hay que aprender gramática. – It is required to learn grammar.

Es + adjetivo + verbo – Verb ser (to be) + adjective + verb

Es preciso saber bien los verbos. – It is necessary to know well the verbs.

Es + adjetivo + sustantivo – Verb ser (to be) + adjective + noun

Es recomendable no hablar en clase mientras el profesor explica. – It is suggested not to speak in class while the teacher explains the lesson.

These are some formulas that we can use to communicate to the interlocutor that we expect them to do something without uttering a direct order, they can be used in formal contexts.

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