Spanish modal verbs: When and how to use them?


Modal verbs are helping verbs, like “should,” “could,” and “would,” that work in combination with another verb to express desire, obligation, to give advice or permission, or to talk about abilities. The most common ones in Spanish are deber (must, should), poder (can), and querer (want), but there are a few more that are very useful: saber (to know), soler (to be accustomed to), deber de (must), tener que (to have to), haber que (to have to), and necesitar (to need). 

Keep reading to learn how to use them!

Table of Contents

For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end of the post.

How to use modal verbs in Spanish?

The use of modal verbs is pretty straightforward in Spanish, as they’re followed by a main verb in the infinitive form. For instance: 
Quiero comer.I want to eat.
Unlike the English “should,” “could,” and “would,” modal verbs in Spanish are conjugated: depending on the tense (past, present, future) or mood (indicative, subjunctive, conditional) you use, they can have different meanings.

Not all modals are used in all tenses/moods. The most common uses are in the present, preterite/imperfect indicative, and conditional. We’ll explore the relevant ones in the following sections.

Furthermore, some modals in the negative can also change the meaning of the main verb. 

No quise comer.
I refused to eat.

Notice that in English the negative word is placed after the modal or auxiliary (often in a contraction: shouldn’t, couldn’t, etc.). In Spanish, however, the negative no, is always placed before the modal.

No debes hablar.
You should not speak.
When using object (direct/indirect) or reflexive pronouns with modal verbs, you have two options for the position of the pronoun: before the modal or attached to the infinitive.
Me debiste llamar. OR Debiste llamarme.
You should have called me.

Next we’ll see how to use each modal.

How to use ‘deber’?

Depending on how it’s used, deber can mean “must,” “ought to,” or “should” in English, and it’s used to express obligation or advice.


  • Obligation

Use deber in the simple present to express obligation. In this case, it’s close in meaning to “must” in English:

Debes respetar las reglas de la clase.

You must respect the rules of the class. 

  • Advice

It is also possible to use it in the Spanish conditional simple to give friendly advice. This is similar to “should” or “ought to”: 

Deberías prestar más atención.   

You should pay more attention. 

When giving advice that refers to the recent or remote past, use the preterite form of the verb deber

Debiste estudiar más para el examen.

You should have studied more for the test. 

👉 Deber can also be used with the preposition de but, in that case, it expresses something different. We’ll cover that below, so stick around!


If you use the verb deber in the negative form, the meaning changes. In this case, it’s used to say that something is not convenient, not recommended, or reproachable: 

No debes comer antes de ir a la piscina. You shouldn’t eat before you go to the pool.
No deberías hablar mal de tus amigos. You shouldn’t speak badly of your friends.
No debiste olvidar la tarea. You shouldn’t have forgotten your homework.

How to use ‘poder’?

Poder (can/to be able) can be used to express permission, requests, ability, possibility, or speculation.


  • Permission

Use poder in the present as an equivalent of “may” to ask for permission in a polite way: 

¿Puedo entrar a su clase, professor? 
May I enter your class, professor?
  • Polite requests

Poder is also useful in the conditional form to ask for something politely. In this case, it’s close in meaning to “could”:

¿Me podría traer la cuenta?
Could you bring me the bill?
  • Ability

Use poder to talk about abilities and skills: 

Emiliano puede hablar 5 idiomas.
Emiliano can speak 5 languages.
  • Possibility

In this case, poder is very similar to the verbs “may” and “could” in English. You can use the imperfect or the conditional:

Podías / podrías haber salido temprano.
You could have left early.
To express a remote possibility, use poder in the conditional form. In this sense, it’s more similar to “might” or “could” in English:

Si todo sale bien, yo podría viajar a España en dos meses.
If everything goes well, I might/could travel to Spain in two months.

Use the phrase puede ser que (could be) to express probability together with the present subjunctive. 
Puede ser que llueva mañana.
It could rain tomorrow.
→ To express disbelief use the phrase:
¡No puede ser!
It can’t be!
  • Speculation

To speculate about something just like with English “could,” you can use poder in the present or the conditional:

Puede / podría ser mi hermano.
It could be my brother.


If you use the verb poder in the negative form, you’re expressing prohibition, lack of permission, or lack of ability

Los estudiantes no pueden entrar tarde a la clase.

Students can’t enter the class late.

Mi amigo no puede montar en bicicleta.
My friend can’t ride a bike.
In the preterite, the negative form expresses an unsuccessful attempt at doing something:
No pude abrir la puerta.
I wasn’t able to open the door.

How to use ‘querer’?

Use querer (to want) as a modal to express will, invitations, and attempts.


  • Will/Desires
Use querer (to want) as a modal verb to indicate will. 
Queremos viajar por todo el mundo.
We want to travel the world.

Querer used in the imperfect subjunctive expresses wishes: 

Ana y Carlos quisieran estar en la playa ahora mismo.
Ana and Carlos wish they were on the beach right now.

⤷TIP The imperfect subjunctive of querer can also translate to “would like” and it can be used for polite inquiries:

Disculpe señor, quisiera preguntarle algo.
Excuse me sir, I would like to ask you something.

  • Invitations
Querer is often used in questions to make invitations:
¿Quieres ir al parque conmigo?
Do you want to go to the park with me?
  • Attempt

Depending on the context, querer in the preterite can mean that you tried to do something but failed at it:

Quise levantarme temprano.

I tried to get up early.


In the negative form, no querer indicates lack of will: 

No quiero trabajar tan temprano.

I don’t want to work so early.

And in the negative preterite it indicates that you refused to do something: 
No quise levantarme temprano.
I refused to wake up early.

Other modal verbs in Spanish

As I told you in the introduction, deber, poder, and querer are the most common modal verbs in Spanish, but there are more that are also very useful. If you want to learn about them, keep reading!


The verb saber (to know) introduces knowledge or ability. If you use it in the negative form, it means lack of knowledge or ability. Use it when you want to say you know how to perform a skill: 

Mi profesora sabe japonés.
My teacher can (knows how to) speak Japanese.
Ellos no saben pintar en acuarela.
They can’t (don’t know how to) paint in watercolor.


The verb soler is used in Spanish to indicate a habit or lack of habit. My students often ask me for the English equivalent. The closest verbs I’ve found to mean soler in English are: “to be accustomed to,” “to tend to,” or “to be used to.” 

Yo suelo tomar café con leche por las mañanas.
I tend to have coffee and milk in the mornings.
No suelo hacer ejercicio. 
I don’t tend to work out.

The verb soler isn’t usually used in every single tense in Spanish. It’s most commonly used in the present or imperfect. On rare occasions, it can be used in the present and imperfect subjunctive:

Simple present: 

Solemos caminar por el parque.
We tend to walk around the park.
Cuando era niña, solía ir al parque.
When I was a child, I used to go to the park. 

⤷TIP  To talk about past habits you need a verb in the imperfect: Todos los veranos, pasábamos una semana en la playa. (Every summer, we used to spend one week at the beach). To expand your Spanish repertoire, you can also use soler (in the imperfect) + infinitive to mean “used to”: Todos los veranos, solíamos pasar una semana en la playa.

Present or Imperfect subjunctive: 

La doctora espera / esperaba que yo suela / soliera cambiar mis hábitos.

The doctor hopes/was hoping that I would change my habits. 

‘Deber de’

The verb deber along with the preposition de is used if we want to express deduction in both affirmative and negative sentences. The meanings in English change a bit: in the affirmative, deber de is closest in meaning to “must,” but in the negative form, it means “can’t” (as in the meaning of being impossible). 
Trabajaste mucho hoy. Debes de estar cansado.
You worked a lot today. You must be tired. 
¿Vamos al parque? No debe de ser muy tarde.
Let’s go to the park! It can’t be very late.

⤷TIP Do you want to express deduction but you also want to show you’re certain that what you’re saying is true? Use the negative form of poder instead: 

Alicia no puede estar enferma. Acabo de verla en la fiesta.    
Alicia can’t be sick. I just saw her at the party.

‘Tener que’

This one is really useful and it can also express different things: obligation or need, advice, and deduction! You always need to use it with the conjunction que and a verb in the infinitive. Let’s see the different cases where it can be used: 

  • Obligation or need

Use tener que (have to) + infinitive to indicate that an action is mandatory or necessary. 

Mañana es el examen final. Tengo que estudiar mucho.    
Tomorrow is the final exam. I have to study a lot.


Use no tener que + infinitive to mean that an action is optional

En esta compañía no tienes que llegar a las 8 de la mañana. 
In this company you don’t have to arrive at 8 in the morning.

👉For more on how to express obligation in Spanish, click the link!

  • Advice

You can also use tener que + infinitive to give advice. In this sense, it’s similar to “must”: 

No te ves bien. Tienes que ir al médico. You don’t look good. You must go to the doctor. 

  • Deduction

Finally, use tener que + infinitive to express deduction. In this sense, its use is very similar to the use of deber de, and the meanings are the same: 

¿Qué hora es? –Tienen que ser las diez. What time is it? -It must be ten. 
Él está de vacaciones. No tiene que estar muy ocupado. He’s on vacation. He can’t be very busy.

No te ves bien. Tienes que ir al médico.
You don’t look good. You must go to the doctor. 
  • Deduction
Finally, use tener que + infinitive to express deduction. In this sense, its use is very similar to the use of deber de, and the meanings are the same:  
¿Qué hora es? –Tienen que ser las diez.
What time is it? -It must be ten. 
Él está de vacaciones. No tiene que estar muy ocupado.
He’s on vacation. He can’t be very busy.

‘Haber que’

The verb haber (to have) works differently than other verbs because when used as a modal with que it only uses the third person singular: había (imperfect), habría (conditional) etc., or in the present use the fixed form hay. This verb combination is very useful to express obligation or need, and is close in meaning to deber. Some students confuse it with tener que, but there’s a difference. Haber que + infinitive is always used to make impersonal sentences, meaning that the actions expressed with it are addressed to a general audience:

Para estar saludable, hay que hacer ejercicio.
In order to be healthy, one has to exercise.

Let’s compare haber que with tener que:

Si queremos detener la contaminación, hay
cambiar de hábitos.

If we want to stop pollution, one has to/ it is
necessary to
change habits.
Si quieres ayudar con el problema de la
contaminación, tienes que empezar a reducir
tus desechos.

If you want to help with the problem of
pollution, you have to start reducing your

As you can see, haber que doesn’t address who has the obligation to do the action, whereas tener que addresses a specific person(s). 

Finally, this combo in the present tense can also be used to suggest to do something, similar to English “let’s”:

¡Hay que bailar! Let’s dance!

To learn about other impersonal expressions such as the impersonal se in Spanish, click the link!


Recall that with modals verbs (and other two-verb combos) object pronouns can be placed before the conjugated verb or attached to the infinitive:

Lo queríamos terminar. OR Queríamos terminarlo.

We wanted to finish it.

However, with this particular combo (haber que + infinitive), the object pronouns cannot be placed before haber.

Había que terminarlo.
Lo había que terminar. 

We had to finish it.


The verb necesitar (to need) is also a very useful one. Its meaning and use in Spanish is quite similar with English: it expresses need, necessity, or lack of necessity.
Necesito tomar más agua.
I need to drink more water. 
No necesitas comprar más zapatos.
You don’t need to buy more shoes.

Some students overuse necesitar to talk about obligation instead of using tener que (have to), and there is a slight difference in Spanish: necesitar is used to talk about personal needs, whereas tener que is used to talk about obligations that are defined by other circumstances. For example:

Personal need → Necesito caminar todos los días para estar saludable.
I need to walk everyday to be healthy.

Obligation → Tengo que caminar a la universidad porque no hay transporte público.
I have to walk to the university because there’s no public transportation.

In conclusion

As you can see, when it comes to modal verbs in Spanish, there’s quite a variety! Depending on what you want to express (advice, ability, obligation, etc.), there are quite a few options you can use to sound like a native speaker! 

To help you learn modal verbs the easy way, we have some gifts for you: check out this cheat sheet with modal verbs in Spanish and English, this conjugation guide, and these Spanish exercises to help you practice and use modal verbs in context. ¡Hasta la próxima!

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.

Unpacking the grammar

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).

The tense has to do with the time when the action takes place, for example: the present, the past, or the future. 

The mood of a verb indicates how the action or state is perceived, or how the speaker imagines the action or state expressed. Spanish has four moods: indicative (yo canto “I sing”), subjunctive (que yo cante “that I sing”), conditional (yo cantaría “I would sing”), and imperative (¡canta! “sing!”). 

The conditional is a verb mood in Spanish that expresses actions that would happen under certain circumstances, for example: 

Compraría esa televisión plana si estuviera en oferta. 
I would buy that flat-screen tv if it were on sale.

An impersonal sentence is a sentence that doesn’t have an explicit or stated subject. For example: 

Es importante reciclar. It’s important to recycle.

Meet The Author:
Natalia Molina
Natalia Molina Ceballos
Spanish Coach
Natalia is a Spanish coach at Mango Languages.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Extra Resources:

Modal verbs table
Modal verbs affirmative form


Modal verbs activity


Modal verbs activity

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