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Expressing necessities

In this lesson, we will cover an important use of two special verbs. The first one is deber, which means must. The second one is tener which means primarily to have. On the other hand, it has various other applications, one of which is the main topic of the present lesson. When it is used together with que and then followed by an infinitive, it means “have to”.

Hence, in this lesson, we will learn how to indicate “have to, must, ought to” in Spanish. For this purpose, one has mainly as mentioned above two possibilities.

One can either use deber or tener together with que:

  • use of the verb “deber”, which can be translated as “must”
  • use of the expression “tener que”, which can be translated as “have to”

Both of these need to be followed by an infinitive to express obligations. And they need to be conjugated according to the subject pronouns.

Let us first see their conjugations in present tense.

Conjugation of deber

It’s a regular verb:

Yo debo I must

Tú debes You must             

Él/ella debe He/she must

Usted debe: You must

Nosotros/-as debemos We must

Vosotros/-as debéis You must

Ellos/-as deben They must

Ustedes deben You must


Conjugation of tener

It’s an irregular stem-changing verb which follos the e->ie rule:

Yo tengo I have to

Tú tienes You have to

Él/ella tiene He/she have to

Usted tiene: You have to

Nosotros/-as tenemos We have to

Vosotros/-as tenéis You have to

Ellos/-as tienen They have to

Ustedes tienen You have to


As mentioned above, you should use the infinitive of the second verb following “tener que”.

  • ¿Tienes que estudiar ahora? (Do you have to study now?)
  • Debo trabajar más (I have to work more)
  • Debemos hablar (We must talk)
  • Tienes que ir al medico (You have to go to the doctor)
  • Tengo que comer ahora (I have to eat now)
  • Tengo que aprender español (I have to learn Spanish)

There is a very slight difference between deber que and tener que and most of the time thay can be used interchangeably.

Instead of tener que and deber, you can use the verb necesitar as well. But keep in mind that it is less common than to use “to need” in English.

Conjugation of necesitar

yo necesito I need

tú necesitas you need

él/ella necesita he/she needs

usted necesita you need

nosotros/-as necesitamos we need

vosotros/-as necesitáis you need

ellos/-as necesitan they need

ustedes necesitan you need

Hay que

Another way to express necessities or obligations is to make use of hay. As you learned in lesson hay or estar? hay means there is/are. Recall that hay is used with indefinite objects to mean there is or there are. Its use for obligations is again relating to indefinite things.

When it is used with que, it also shows obligations. On the other hand, this time the subject of the sentence is unclear. Thus, it refers to something like “something has to be done”. That means that, you do not need to change “hay” according to the subject pronoun contrary to the uses of “tener que” and “deber”. Hence, always “hay” is used as the verb form.


Hay que trabajar mucho (It’s necessary to work a lot)

In Spanish, for a similar purpose as “hay que” –to state a general obligation- you can also use “se debe”:


Did you know that tener is used to express many other things as well?

Below some common uses of tener are listed:

Tener celos to be jealous

Tener calor to be hot

Tener frio to be cold

tener vergüenza to be ashamed

Tener prisa to be in a hurry

Tener hambre to be hungry

Tener sed to be thirsty

Tener suerte to be lucky

Tener ciudado to be careful

Tener dolor de to hurt

Tener confianza to be confident


Another important use of tener is the expression “tener ganas de”, which means to feel like something.

  • tengo ganas de bailar (I feel like dancing)
  • ¿Tienes ganas de estudiar? (Do you feel like studying?)

Let's Practice

Translate the following into Spanish

All Exercises