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How to express obligation in Spanish

How do you use Tener and Haber to talk about obligations, such as “I had to do that” and “someone needs to do it”? Let’s explore the Tener + que and Haber + que constructions that Spanish uses to express obligation.

Full Podcast Episode


Here! You have to have these.

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

In the last few weeks, we’ve learned a couple different ways that “have” can be translated from English into Spanish. We use Haber to put other verbs in the past, and we use Tener to talk about possession.

As some quick examples, see if you can predict whether the following sentence would be Tener or Haber.

“I have the things.”

This would be Tener, because “have” here refers to possession.

Tengo las cosas.

Now how about this one:

“I have been here.”

In this case, I’m not saying I *have* anything, we’re using “have” to put something in the past. So here we’re using Haber.

He estado aquí.

Now what about this sentence:

“I have to do something.”

Hmm. We don’t seem to be talking about possession, and we’re definitely not putting something in the past. What does “have” mean here, and how would we put this in Spanish?

We call this situation obligation. When you say that you have to do something, it’s like saying that you need to do something or are obligated to do something.

And actually, situations like this DO use Tener. But in a special way.

The way that this works in Spanish is you’ll use a conjugation of Tener, in this case tengo for “I have”, and then you use the word que, and then you use an infinitive. So:

I have to do something.

Tengo que hacer algo.

This is always the case when you say that someone “has to” to something, implying obligation: You’ll use Tener, then que, then the infinitive of a verb.

Let’s practice this a bit.

I have to go there now.

Tengo que ir ahí ahora.

She has to leave.

Se tiene que ir.

We have to do something!

¡Tenemos que hacer algo!

They don’t have to do that.

No tienen que hacer eso.

All of these examples only used the present tense of Tener, but we can even do this in other tenses, such as the future or the past. This will let us do some creative things with the infinitives of other verbs. For example, we have barely begun learning the verb Hacer, and we don’t have many forms for it, so we can’t really use it in the present, past, and future by conjugating it. But we CAN express someone’s obligation to do something in the present, past, or future, simply by conjugating Tener, and then using que hacer afterwards.

As a fun example, we don’t know yet how to say “I did it”, but we do know how to say:

I had to do it.

Lo tuve que hacer.

Now, there is one complication. We could have translated this into Spanish as lo tenía que hacer. The meaning would be slightly different. By using the preterite, we’re indicating that there was one specific moment of having to do it, and it kind of implies that we did do it. But in the case of lo tenía que hacer, we’re just expressing a general obligation in the past, not one defining moment. Unfortunately, both lo tuve que hacer and lo tenía que hacer simply translate into English as “I had to do it”; it’s very difficult to make it clear from the English which Spanish version to pick. So in our quizzing, you’re welcome to translate sentences like “I had to do it” or “she had to do it” as either preterite or imperfect; remember that you didn’t get it wrong just because we happened to translate it differently.

Let’s get some practice here, and for the purpose of this mini-quiz, all of the examples will be imperfects (such as tenías que or tenían que) except when I tell you ahead of time that it’s going to be preterite.

You(formal) had to do your job.

Usted tenía que hacer su job.

Usted tenía que hacer su trabajo.

She had to study for the test.

Ella tenía que study para the test.

Ella tenía que estudiar para el examen.

We didn’t have to go.

No teníamos que ir.

(preterite) He offered, so he had to do it.

He offered, so lo tuvo que hacer.

Se ofreció, entonces lo tuvo que hacer.

They didn’t have to be there.

No tenían que estar ahí.

(preterite) I had to help them.

Los tuve que help.

Los tuve que ayudar.

Now for fun, see if you can translate this really tricky one:

There has to be someone here.

What verbs do you think we need to use here? Clearly we’re using “has to” to indicate obligation. But the verb “to be” isn’t Ser or Estar; it’s actually going to be Haber. That’s because we’re not talking about what someone is or where someone is, but rather the existence of someone. So in Spanish, you would actually say tiene que haber, which is impossible to translate literally word-by-word into English, but it’s how you say “there has to be”. Try this yourself with a couple of examples:

There has to be someone at the house.

Tiene que haber alguien en la casa.

There had to be something else.

Tenía que haber algo más.

Now, speaking of Haber, let’s talk about another very non-literal way that this is used between languages. Haber is often used to talk about existence, but not just the existence of people or things; it can actually also be used to talk about the existence of an obligation.

To show how this works, let’s imagine that you and a few others have just finished eating lunch at a picnic table in a beautiful park. You’re all just about to leave, but being a responsible person, you realize it would be good to clean up some spilled food from the picnic table rather than leaving it for the local wildlife.

Now, there are a few things you could say in this situation, based on who you think should do the cleaning up. You could say “I have to do something”, or tengo que hacer algo. But that’s not really true, because you’re not the one who made the entire mess.

You could say tienes que hacer algo if you want to tell one of your friends that they have to do it.

Or you could say tenemos que hacer algo to be vague as to who you think has to do it.

To be even more vague, something you could say in Spanish is hay que hacer algo.

What is this sentence? Literally, “there is that to do something”. This is a turn of phrase that is very common in Spanish but never happens in English. This phrase expresses a need to do something, without any reference to who should do it.

Hay que hacer algo.

So if you want to be specific as to who has to do something, you’ll use Tener que and conjugate it accordingly. But if you want to talk about the general obligation, without reference to specifically who has to do it, you can use Haber, specifically the forms that we use for existence.

You can even put this in the past, basically to say:

There was a need to do something.

Había que hacer algo.

Or you can put it in the future:

There will be a need to do something.

Habrá que hacer algo.

None of these sentences translates very well from Spanish into English; in fact, translators tend to simplify things by just translating them as “we have to do something” or “you have to do something”, although technically those should be Tener, not Haber. So in general, in our quizzing, what I’ll do is I’ll present the English as something like “there is a need” or “there was a need”, and you’ll know to translate it as Haber + que + an infinitive.

Let’s practice this a little bit.

There is a need to have more things.

Hay que tener más cosas.

There will be a need to do that.

Habrá que hacer eso.

There is going to be a need to do that.

Va a haber que hacer eso.

There was a need to be there.

Había que estar ahí.

I know that it’s pretty tricky because we’ve covered a lot in this episode, and you may need to drill down on something specific. To get more practice with anything in particular, go to LCSPodcast.com/53 and work on whatever’s giving you trouble.

Otherwise, if you feel ready, let’s practice all of this with today’s final quiz.

There was a need to do that.

Había que hacer eso.

I won’t have to do much there.

No tendré que hacer mucho ahí.

Where did he have to work that day?

¿Dónde tuvo que work ese día?

¿Dónde tuvo que trabajar ese día?

There won’t be a need to do something so extreme.

No habrá que hacer algo tan extreme.

No habrá que hacer algo tan extremo.

I have to cook the food for the party.

Tengo que cook the food para the party.

Tengo que cocinar la comida para la fiesta.

How much do we have to help? With everything?

¿Cuánto tenemos que help? ¿Con todo?

¿Cuánto tenemos que ayudar? ¿Con todo?

My friends had to help me with this.

Mis amigos me tenían que help con esto.

Mis amigos me tenían que ayudar con esto.

There has to be enough food for everyone.

Tiene que haber enough food para todos.

Tiene que haber suficiente comida para todos.

She won’t have to do it again.

No lo tendrá que hacer otra vez.

I had to go, but I didn’t do it.

Tenía que ir, pero no lo I did.

Tenía que ir, pero no lo hice.

It's done, I had to do it on behalf of my friend(m).

Ya está, lo tuve que hacer por mi amigo.

They will only have to be there at 7, since the movie starts at 8.

Solo tendrán que estar ahí a 7, ya que the movie starts a 8.

Solo tendrán que estar ahí a las 7, ya que la película empieza a las 8.

She has to apologize upon making a mistake.

Tiene que apologize al making a mistake.

Tiene que disculparse al cometer un error.

How have you not ever been there?

¿Cómo no has estado ahí nunca?

You always have to be better than the day before.

Siempre tienes que ser mejor que el día before.

Siempre tienes que ser mejor que el día anterior.

You had to be on time.

Tenías que estar a tiempo.

All good? There is a need to finish this soon.

¿Todo bien? Hay que finish esto soon.

¿Todo bien? Hay que terminar esto pronto.

They have to know the truth.

Tienen que know la verdad.

Tienen que saber la verdad.

For more practice with Tener que and Haber que, go to LCSPodcast.com/53.

Tomorrow we’re going to learn a bunch of new adjectives, including our first numbers!

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Ximena Lama-Rondón. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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