Obligation is expressed in Spanish through the use of three main expressions: tener que (have to), hay que (it is necessary to), and deber (must). All these expressions are followed by an infinitive verb. Although these are the most common ways to express obligation, there are other expressions that can also be used, for example using expressions like “es necesario” (it’s mandatory), “hace falta” (it’s needed), or “me toca…” (it’s my turn to…). Ready to find out what they are and how to use them like a native speaker? Keep reading!
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‘Tener que’ + infinitive
This expression is used for personal obligation, that is, rules or tasks that we make for ourselves or others that are not established for everybody. It is commonly used in the present tense to express the things that we have to do.
The verb tener (to have) is irregular, you can review the complete conjugation of tener here.
Tener que + infinitive in the past tenses can mean different things depending on the tense you use. If it’s used in the preterite it expresses an obligation that was carried out, but if used in the imperfect we don’t know if the obligation was completed or not.
They had to buy more water. (they bought it)
Tenían que comprar más agua.
They had (were supposed) to buy more water.
The expression No tener más remedio que… (Not to have a choice) is used as an alternative for tener que (have to) and it is used to express strong obligation or lack of choice.
No tengo más remedio que ir al banco.
I have no choice but to go to the bank.
The negative no tener que (don’t/doesn’t have to) can express both lack of obligation or activities that are optional:
No tengo que levantarme temprano mañana.
Tomorrow, I don’t have to wake up early.
No tienes que pagar ahora.
You don’t need to pay right now.
When using object or reflexive pronouns with tener que + infinitive, the pronoun can be placed before tener or attached to the infinitive:
Lo tengo que lavar con agua tibia.
Tengo que lavarlo con agua tibia.
I have to wash it with lukewarm water.
Me tengo que levantar temprano.
Tengo que levantarme temprano.
I have to wake up early.
‘Hay que’ + infinitive
Hay que is an impersonal expression, doesn’t have a specific subject and is not directed towards someone specific. Hay is an invariable form of the verb haber in the present tense, so it does not need to be conjugated. It can be used to express obligation or recommendation in a general sense and it’s milder than tener que.
Hay que + infinitive is used to express something that needs to be done and it is equivalent to “need to” or “it’s necessary.”
Hay que donar dinero para la caridad.
It is necessary to donate money to charity.
This expression is also used as an indirect command or a recommendation.
Hay que llegar temprano a clase.
Let’s arrive early to class.
⤷TIP The impersonal form of haber can also be used in other tenses to express obligation: había (imperfect), hubo (preterite), habría (conditional), habrá (future), etc.
Habría que traer más sillas.
We would have to bring more chairs.
When using object or reflexive pronouns with hay que + infinitive, the pronoun can only be placed attached to the infinitive:
Hay que lavarlo con agua tibia.
It needs to be washed with lukewarm water.
Hay que levantarse temprano.
It’s necessary to wake up early.
A less common use of the verb haber to express obligation is in phrases: haber + de + infinitive to express a pending obligation and can be translated as “should.”
He de buscarlo en cuanto llegue.
I should look for it as soon as I get home.
‘Deber’ + infinitive
The verb deber + infinitive expresses obligation in both established rules, and rules we make for ourselves. In the first case it means “have/has to,” while in the second it means “must.”
- Established rules.
These are rules that apply to everybody.
Debes guardar silencio en la biblioteca.
You have to be silent at the library.
- Rules we make for ourselves.
These are personal rules we follow and that don’t necessarily apply for everybody.
No debo comer demás.
I must not eat more than necessary.
In everyday conversation, people sometimes use deber de (must have) to express obligation:
Debo de terminar la tarea instead of Debo terminar la tarea (I must finish the homework).
However, “deber de” is used for deductions or predictions rather than obligation. Find more information in our post about Spanish modal verbs or here.
⤷TIP It is possible to express different degrees of obligation using different tenses/moods. The present expresses a strong obligation, whereas the conditional reduces the degree and expresses a recommendation. The imperfect subjunctive with the ending -ra can also be used to mean “ought to,” but it’s not very common:
Colloquially, the imperfect tense can replace the conditional:
Deber and tener que are often interchangeable, however, tener que implies an obligation that is defined by external circumstances, whereas deber implies a personal or moral obligation.
External → Tengo que estudiar para mi examen de español.
I have to study for my Spanish test.
Internal → Debo estudiar para mi examen de español.
I must study for my Spanish test.
In the example with tener que, the obligation might stem from the fact that the exam is coming up and the person has to study for it. Whereas in the next example, the obligation might stem from a personal goal of the person to do better in the exam.
Some impersonal expressions, such as es obligatorio (it’s mandatory) or es necesario (it’s necessary), are used to express obligation. These expressions are followed by an infinitive. For example:
Es obligatorio + infinitive
Es obligatorio lavarse las manos.
It is mandatory to wash one’s hands.
No se puede + infinitive
No se puede hacer el check out después de las 2
It is not possible to check out after 2.
When one of these impersonal expressions is followed by que, then the subjunctive must be used in the subordinate clause. It is important that both the verb in the indicative and the subjunctive are in the present tense.
Es obligatorio que + subjunctive
It is obligatory (for you) to wear the uniform.
Es necesario que + subjunctive
It is necessary that you learn the rules.
Es importante que + subjunctive
It is important that you attend the meeting.
Es preciso que + subjunctive
It is necessary that we make a decision.
Hace falta (it’s needed) is similar in meaning to hay que, but this expression implies that there is something lacking, in this case something that needs to be done. Furthermore, it can refer to collective obligation or to the obligation of a person or people in particular.
When addressing a collective obligation, you only need to add an infinitive after hace falta:
Hace falta + infinitive
It’s necessary that someone cleans.
When it refers to the obligation of a specific person or people, this phrase is used with an indirect object pronoun (me, te, le, nos, os, les).
IOP + hace falta + infinitive
Les hace falta estudiar más.
They need to study more.
When hace falta is followed by que (that) then, it must be used with the subjunctive and it specifies whose obligation this is.
Hace falta que + subjunctive
It’s necessary that you clean here.
No hace falta que limpies aquí. It is not necessary that you clean here.
Other forms of expressing obligation
- Tocar (be your turn)
Some expressions with this verb refer to obligation or responsibility. It can be used impersonally, which in English would be “(activity) time” as in “reading time.” In this case, the verb is conjugated in the third person singular followed by an infinitive.
Hoy toca cocinar.
⤷TIP This use of tocar follows the same structure of verbs like gustar (it’s pleasing).
- The use of the infinitive to express an obligation is commonly found in ads to express a rule.
Favor de permanecer sentado.
Please, remain seated.
⤷TIP The infinitive is often preceded by the expression “favor de” (please) to express politeness.
Find more information about how to use infinitives to express obligation and other uses of Spanish infinitives here.
- Commands can be used to express obligation.
¡Llega puntual! Arrive on time!
- The present tense is also used to express obligation, for example, when giving instructions:
Te bajas en la siguiente estación. You get off at the next station.
- The future tense can express obligation in formal settings, for example in contracts:
La compañía no divulgará información confidencial.
The company will not disclose any private information.
- Nouns (without a verb) can be used to express obligation. This is common in ads.
Uso obligatorio de equipo de protección. Wear protective gear.
Obligation in Spanish is expressed by using: tener que (have to), deber (must), hay que (it’s necessary) + infinitive, impersonal expressions, or hace falta (it’s necessary).
There are other expressions for obligation which include:
- toca (it’s someone’s turn to do something),
- the present or future and,
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An infinitive is a verb in its basic form, for example “to run,” “to eat,” “to be.” In Spanish, infinitives have one of three endings: -ar, -er, -ir (cantar, comer, vivir).
An impersonal sentence is a sentence that doesn’t have an explicit or stated subject.