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How to say “should” in Spanish

How do you say “should” in Spanish? Let’s keep working on the verb Deber, and we’ll learn how to use forms like debería to say “should”, “shouldn’t”, and things like that.

Full Podcast Episode


Deberías hacerlo hasta el fin.

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

Yesterday we began learning the verb Deber, which means something like “must”.

Let’s learn the rest of our conjugations of this verb. We’ll begin with the preterite forms, which all rhyme with the preterite forms of Dar. Remember that the word for “I gave” is di, and the word for “he/she/usted gave” is dio. The equivalent forms for Deber are debí and debió. In each case, there’s an accent mark on the last letter.

Incidentally, compare these to the equivalent forms of Hablar. There we had hablé for “I spoke” and habló for “he/she spoke”. Here the analogous forms are debí and debió. So they’re kind of similar, with the stress on a final vowel, with a stress on “O” for the third person and on a brighter vowel for the first person.

To practice this, let’s do a little quiz on these four preterite forms of the two verbs: hablé, habló, debí, and debió. I’ll mix them up and ask you to come up with the right conjugation quickly. But I’ll also throw in a few present-tense forms to help you practice shifting gears.

So what’s the preterite “he/she” form for Hablar? …habló

What’s the present-tense “I” form for Deber? …debo

What’s the preterite “he/she” form for Deber? …debió

What’s the present-tense “I” form for Hablar? …hablo

What’s the preterite “I” form for Deber? …debí

And what’s the preterite “I” form for Hablar? …hablé 

All right, the rest of the preterite forms of Deber rhyme with the equivalent forms of Ir. So we have debiste, debimos, and debieron.

Let’s practice all the preterite forms of Deber…

But there’s a little bit of a complication: There’s no way to put the word “must” in the past in English! Try it yourself by taking an English sentence that uses “must” and then trying to put it in the past. For example, let’s say you want to say “he must do it today”. But then you want to change it to apply to yesterday instead. It just doesn’t work. Either you have to say “he must have done it yesterday” or “he had to do it yesterday”, neither of which uses the past tense of the word “must” (which doesn’t exist in English).

So here’s what I’ll do for the purpose of this quiz: In the English, I’m going to say “had to”. By default, this should indicate that you should use Tener que rather than Deber. But I’ll just let you know right now that all of these examples in this next quiz will be forms of Deber, not Tener. So let’s try this, and we’ll start without sentence examples; we’ll only use the conjugations themselves.

So using Deber, how would you say:

“We had to…” debimos

How about “they had to…” debieron

How would you say “I had to…” debí

How about “you had to…” debiste

And how would you say “she had to…” debió

All right, let’s put these into some sentence contexts. Try to predict the Spanish.

She had to go to the house with her mother.

Debió ir a la casa con su madre.

You had to be here, Julia already left.

Debiste estar aquí, Julia ya se fue.

The class was good, but we had to have that book.

La clase fue buena, pero debimos tener ese libro.

Did they have to do it today?

¿Debieron hacerlo hoy?

Yes, I had to know this.

Sí, debí saber esto.

Now let’s learn the imperfect past of Deber. These all work the same way that Tener, Querer, and Hacer did: With a stress on “ía”. So we have debía, debías, debían, and debíamos.

For the future tense, we modify the word Deber the same way we normally do: “I must” in the future is deberé, “he, she, or it must” in the future is deberá, “you must” in the future is deberás, “they must” in the future is deberán, “we must” in the future is deberemos.

Let’s practice the imperfect and future forms of Deber. This is again kind of tricky, since English doesn’t have a good way to put “must” in the future or the past. So once again I’ll be using phrases like “they had to” or “you will have to”, but just be aware that for the purposes of this next quiz, we won’t use Tener que, we’ll use Deber — specifically the imperfect and future tenses.

I had to be with my mom that day, but I wasn’t.

Debía estar con mi mamá ese día, pero no estuve.

Did we have to be at home?

¿Debíamos estar en casa?

You will have to do that in the future.

Deberás hacer eso en el futuro.

I was not happy, that is why you had to be with me.

No estaba feliz, por eso debías estar conmigo.

She will have to have a house.

Ella deberá tener una casa.


The subjunctive forms of Deber are pretty easy to learn based on a strange rule about regular verbs in general. Remember how in Hablar, most of the forms involved the letter A (since those were regular AR verbs), but the subjunctive forms all replaced the A with E. Well, for Deber, it’s the opposite. Most of our forms have the letter E in the second syllable (since they’re regular ER verbs), but for the subjunctive, we use the letter A. So “I must” as a subjunctive is deba, “he/she/it must” as a subjunctive is also deba, “you must” subjunctive is debas, “they must” subjunctive is deban, and “we must” subjunctive is debamos.

Let’s practice these. Once again, I’ll sometimes use phrasings such as “has to” or “have to”, but use the subjunctives of Deber rather than Tener que.

I want her to have to go with you.

Quiero que ella deba ir contigo.

She will be here when you must leave.

Ella estará aquí cuando te debas ir.

Maybe I must go to Juan’s house.

Quizás deba ir a la casa de Juan.

It might be that we must have many things.

Puede que debamos tener muchas cosas.

The unconjugated forms of Deber are exactly what you would expect: The infinitive is deber, the participle is debido, and then the gerund is debiendo. You’ll actually probably never need the gerund of Deber, but knowing that it ends with iendo like that will help you conjugate other regular ER verbs, so it’s worth memorizing.

Here’s an example of debido.

I have had to do it.

He debido hacerlo.

There’s one more set of conjugations to learn, the conditionals of Deber. Remember that all of the conditionals we’ve learned have used a stress on “ría”. So the conditional forms of Deber are: debería, deberías, deberían, and deberíamos.

Now wait a second… Why would we ever say “would must”? That’s a bizarre phrasing that is never used in English and seems like it shouldn’t be important. But actually, these conditional forms of Deber are some of the most important conjugations of this verb. And that’s because in Spanish, one way to say “should” is with these words for “would must”! In fact, most of the time, when you see the word “should” in English, the verb Deber is the best way to translate it, specifically using the conditional forms.

As an example, compare these two sentences. First of all:

You all must go there.

Ustedes deben ir ahí.

We can soften this by using the conditional instead; it’s a bit less harsh.

You all should go there.

Ustedes deberían ir ahí.

Let’s practice these.

Susana should do it this way.

Susana debería hacerlo así.

You should have more tables here.

Deberías tener más mesas aquí.

Should they leave this place?

¿Deberían irse de este lugar?

We should go to Minnesota because she’s there.

Deberíamos ir a Minnesota porque ella está allí.

Now, before going on to our final quiz, let’s dig into some of the special nuances of choosing when to use Deber versus Tener que versus debería.

In general, Deber is translated as “must”, except when it’s conditional, in which case it’s translated as “should”. But what’s the difference between “must”, “should”, and “have to”? For example, what’s the difference between “you must be here”, “you should be here”, and “you have to be here”?

It seems like all of these phrases should mean roughly the same thing, and they sort of do. In real life, if you want to say “they have to be here”, it doesn’t really matter much whether you say tienen que estar aquí versus deberían estar aquí. But unfortunately, this makes things a bit tricky for our quizzes. Obviously, if you want to learn good Spanish, you need to be able to practice all the different ways that Deber is used, as well as all the ways Tener que is used. So we want to include all the different forms in today’s quiz, but it will be really frustrating if you are surprised over and over by the way we translate sentences.

So we’re going to lay down a couple of simple translation rules here.

Let’s start with the present tense. In general, whenever we use “must” in English, you should expect a form of Deber. Whenever we use “should”, you should specifically expect Deber, but a conditional form, such as debería. And when the phrasing is “have to”, you should expect Tener que. All of this will apply pretty precisely, specifically when we use the present tense of any of these.

Let’s practice these right now.

Sorry, we should leave now.

Perdón, nos deberíamos ir ahora.

My point is they shouldn’t do it.

Mi punto es que no deberían hacerlo.

I have to know what they must do.

Tengo que saber lo que ellos deben hacer.

She must speak Spanish.

Debe hablar español.

They don’t have to do that.

No tienen que hacer eso.

I should go to the party, but I don’t want to.

Debería ir a la fiesta, pero no quiero.

I must do what she told me to do.

Debo hacer lo que ella me dijo que hiciera.

Yikes, we have to leave this place now.

Ay, nos tenemos que ir de este lugar ahora.

Finally! You must have a good time at the party!

¡Por fin! ¡Debes pasarlo bien en la fiesta!

All right, but you shouldn’t do it.

Bueno, pero no deberías hacerlo.

Enough, you don’t have to do it anymore today, see ya!

Basta, ya no tienes que hacerlo hoy, ¡nos vemos!

All right, so the present tense has some pretty precise translation rules. But in the past, it gets a bit more hairy. Here again are three sentences that use “must”, “should”, and “has to”.

She must do it. Lo debe hacer.

She should do it. Lo debería hacer.

She has to do it. Lo tiene que hacer.

But how would you put these in the past? In the case of “she must do it”, we can easily put the Spanish version in the past: lo debe hacer turns into lo debió hacer. But the English is impossible to put in the past. We have to change it from “she must do it” to “she had to do it”, which seems to imply Tener que rather than Deber.

Another way we could potentially phrase this in English is:

She should have done it.

But this actually implies yet another translation:

Lo debería haber hecho.

Wow, that’s a complicated sentence. We suddenly threw Haber in there to make it literally “she should have done it”.

The bottom line is that there’s really no simple way to translate the past-tense forms of Deber into English. So when you hear me say “she had to do it”, you’re sometimes going to see it translated as tuvo que hacerlo, and sometimes it’ll be debió hacerlo.

To make it even more complicated, there’s the question of whether to translate as a preterite or as an imperfect. For example, there are two different translations of “we had to do it” even using Deber: debimos hacerlo versus debíamos hacerlo.

The fact is, there is actually a slightly nuanced difference of whether you use preterite or imperfect. The statement debimos hacerlo means “we had to do it”, specifically implying that we DID do it. But the statement debíamos hacerlo means “we had an obligation to do it”, but we may or may not have actually done it.

Now, since English doesn’t have a distinction between the preterite and the imperfect, it’s very difficult to tell which one to expect when you see the English first.

The bottom line is that we’ve entered some really nuanced territory here, where Spanish and English just don’t see eye to eye. On today’s quiz, I’m going to tell you very explicitly whether we’re using Deber or Tener que, and I’ll also tell you whether to use the preterite or the imperfect. But in general, the thing to keep in mind is that there aren’t strict rules here. Once you’ve gotten used to using Deber in the past, don’t worry too much about expecting tenía que hacer when it was actually debía hacer.

All right, time for today’s final quiz, where we’re going to mix and match all of the different uses of Deber that we’ve learned. Let’s dive in.

She had(Deber preterite) to do it, because there wasn’t another way.

Debió hacerlo porque no había otra forma.

The less they do now, the more I must do later.

Cuanto menos hacen ahora, más debo hacer después.

You shouldn’t say that.

No deberías decir eso.

I have not had(Deber participle) to do it.

No he debido hacerlo.

We must do something regarding his problem.

Debemos hacer algo en cuanto a su problema.

I should have a number before going there.

Debería tener un número antes de ir ahí.

We had(Deber imperfect) to tell him that, but we didn’t.

Debíamos decirle eso, pero no lo hicimos.

He must know that what he did isn’t right.

Él debe saber que lo que hizo no está bien.

Hey! How many things did I have(Deber imperfect) to have?

¡Hey! ¿Cuántas cosas debía tener?

He will have to(Deber) tell her about the death of her friend.

Deberá decirle de la muerte de su amigo.

We must be in that place on time and you must be there too.

Debemos estar en ese lugar a tiempo y tú debes estar ahí también.

You will have to(Deber) do what I tell you.

Deberás hacer lo que yo te diga.

Okay, but we had(Deber preterite) to do it.

Okey, pero debimos hacerlo.

I know that having(Deber) to do that is a big problem.

Sé que deber hacer eso es un gran problema.

She should tell him that it’s all good.

Debería decirle que no pasa nada.

Oh, you shouldn’t say those things.

Oh, no deberías decir esas cosas.

Ah, I must not be in the middle of the way.

Ah, no debo estar en el medio del camino.

You should have(Deber preterite) seen it, it was good.

Debiste verlo, fue bueno.

I’m not sure(f) that the man must go.

No estoy segura de que el hombre deba ir.

Having(deber) to be there is the only thing I have(Tener) to do.

Deber estar ahí es lo único que tengo que hacer.

She should do it instead.

Ella debería hacerlo en vez.

My friend should have(Deber imperfect) gone with me, but he didn’t do it.

Mi amigo debía ir conmigo, pero no lo hizo.

The more they go to that place, the more they must talk.

Cuanto más van a ese lugar, más deben hablar.

I should go home instead of going to the party.

Debería ir a casa en vez de ir a la fiesta.

I had to(Deber preterite) tell them because they are my friends.

Debí decirles porque son mis amigos.

How many dollars must he have in order to go to that place?

¿Cuántos dólares debe tener para ir a ese lugar?

You had(Deber imperfect) to do it, but in the end it’s ok if you didn’t do it.

Debías hacerlo, pero al final está bien si no lo hiciste.

You should do it until the end.

Deberías hacerlo hasta el fin.

They must have as much as they want because the others aren’t here.

Deben tener cuanto quieran porque los otros no están aquí.

They should have(Deber preterite) done more, but anyway, they didn’t.

Debieron hacer más, pero en fin, no lo hicieron.

We shouldn’t talk to them, they aren’t our friends.

No deberíamos hablar con ellos, no son nuestros amigos.

Maybe we must talk more.

Quizás debamos hablar más.

You must know that he hasn’t ever come here.

Debes saber que él no ha venido nunca aquí.

Well, I’ll be here until you must do it.

Pues, estaré aquí hasta que debas hacerlo.

I’m not sure(m) that I must be here, so goodbye!

No estoy seguro de que deba estar aquí, ¡así que adiós!

For more practice with all of this, go to LCSPodcast.com/107.

In tomorrow’s episode, we’ll continue to practice Deber, and we’ll also learn some location adverbs, such as the words for “outside”, “inside”, “near”, and “far”.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Michael Agudelo. Our music was performed 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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