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5 ways to express obligation in Spanish and their differences

5 ways to express obligation in Spanish and their differences

We all have obligations and things to do in our everyday lives, and these tasks will often differ in their nature. From moral values to menial chores, our day to day is filled with a vast collage of duties that dictate our priorities. This article will cover how to successfully express these obligations in Spanish.

Let’s talk about “deber” and “tener” first. Although most of our students are familiar with these two verbs when used in periphrasis with another verb, it is still valuable to talk about them before covering other verbs that function in a similar fashion to express obligation in Spanish. Let's dissect these two verbs separately:

Deber

Deber” is used to express an internal or moral obligation. These obligations are often imposed by the speaker’s values or social norms. In this case this verb is used just like the verb ‘must’ in English. For example:

Debo respetar a mis padres. — I must respect my parents.

Los niños deben hacer la tarea — Children must do their homework.

It is important to mention that “deber” is also used to express a strong suggestion from one person to another. In this scenario “deber” is often translated to ‘should’ in English. Let's take a look at this conversation between a doctor and the patient:

Doctor: Señora Martínez, usted debe descansar más. Si continúa trabajando de esta manera va a tener problemas serios de salud.

— Mrs Martinez, you should rest more. If you continue working this way, you are going to have serious health problems.

Paciente: Bueno doctor, voy a tomar unas vacaciones.

 Ok doctor, I am going to take vacation.

Tener

Tener” is used to express an external obligation. These obligations are often imposed by the circumstances. “Tener” is used more than “deber” in Spanish.

Tengo que comprar pan. — I have to buy bread.

Tenemos que terminar el proyecto para el viernes. — We have to finish the project for Friday.

Now let’s dive into the other two verbs to express obligation “haber” and “tocar”.

Haber” is used to express obligations in two different ways: “hay que” and “haber de”.

Haber

Yo he

Tú has

Él/Ella/Usted ha (impersonal: hay)

Nosotro hemos

Vosotros habéis

Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes han

Hay que

Hay que” - Let’s remember that “haber” is the infinitive form of “hay” in the present, and we can use “hay que + infinitive verb” in order to express an obligation without mentioning whose obligation it is. In this case, it would match when we say in English that something needs or has to be done. For example:

Hay que aspirar la sala — The living room needs to be vacuumed

Hay que eliminar opciones — Some options need to be eliminated

Haber de

Haber de” - In this scenario we have to conjugate “haber” as we do in the “Pretérito perfecto compuesto”, and it is often used to express obligation in a more vague fashion. For example:

Ella ha de divulgar la información correcta —She has to disclose the correct information

Los bebés han de dormir más de ocho horas — Babies have to sleep more than 8 hours

Note that in the examples above we are expressing more the expectations than literal obligations or duties.

Tocar

Tocar” is often used to express obligation often indicating that it is someone’s turn to do something. This verb is used in the same structure as gustar for this purpose. For example:

A Luis le toca lavar el carro esta semana — Luis has to wash the car this week / It’s Luis’s turn to wash the car this week

¿Te toca cuidar a tu sobrino el fin de semana? — Do you have to take care of your nephew on the weekend? / Is it your turn to take care of your nephew this week?

Note: It's possible to use the verb “tocar” directly with an infinitive verb, but it will become an impersonal obligation. For example:

Toca llamar a todos los clientes ≈ Hay que llamar a todos los clientes

It is needed to call the clients.

Comparison

Now let’s compare these 5 ways to express obligation side by side in different scenarios:

  • Sara debe comprar la comida en un restaurante vegano.

Sarah must buy the food in a vegan restaurant. - there are moral rules or social norms attached here. She does it out of principle or religion

  • Sara tiene que comprar la comida en un restaurante vegano.

Sarah has to buy the food in a vegan restaurant. - there are circumstantial influences in this obligation. For example, Sarah knows some of the guests are vegan, etc.

  • Sara ha de comprar la comida en un restaurante vegano.

Sarah has to buy the food in a vegan restaurant. - This case is very similar to “tener que” but there is a hint of expectation more than real obligation.

  • A Sara le toca comprar la comida en un restaurante vegano esta vez

Sarah has to buy the food in a vegan restaurant this time. / It is Sarah’s turn to…

In this sentence we know that it is either Sarah’s turn to buy the food or it is time to change the restaurant to a vegan one.

  • Hay que comprar la comida en un restaurante vegano.

One has to buy the food in a vegan restaurant or someone has to do it.

These constructions can also be used to express expectations changing mainly the emphasis on the expectation:

  • Mi hijo debe ser un buen hombre.

My son must be a good man. In this sentence there is a strong link with moral values of the speakers or the social norms.

  • Mi hijo tiene que ser un buen hombre.

My son has to be a good man. In this sentence there is a strong link with external circumstances. For example, the son has some legal issues in the past and to avoid them in the future he has to be a good man.

  • Mi hijo ha de ser un buen hombre.

My son has to be a good man. This sentence expresses a combination of a sense of obligation for the son and the expectation of the parent.

  • A mi hijo le toca ser un buen hombre.

My son has to be a good man or it is time for my son to be a good man. In this scenario there is an implied message that this son has not been a good man in the past.

  • Hijo mío, hay que ser un buen hombre en la vida.

My son, one has to be a good man in life. This sentence, more than an obligation, indicates a suggestion.

Additionally we need to mention that these structures in negative might indicate a different message. For example:

  • No debemos hablar en la conferencia.

We must not speak at the conference. / We should not speak at the conference.

Indicating that it would be for the best if we don’t speak at the conference.

  • No tenemos que hablar en la conferencia.

We don't have to speak at the conference. Indicating simply a matter of choice.

  • No hemos de hablar en la conferencia.

We are not to speak at the conference. Indicating the expectation of not speaking at the conference.

  • No nos toca hablar en la conferencia.

It is not our turn to speak at the conference. / We don’t have to speak at the conference. Indicating that we are not required to speak at the conference.

  • No hay que hablar en la conferencia.

It is not necessary to speak at the conference.

Well, that is all for this article. We hope this brought some understanding about how to express obligation in Spanish. Now you can be very clear when expressing the tasks you need to perform.

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