Expressing obligation in Spanish
Expressing obligation in Spanish is one of the most useful contents for students who learn Spanish on Spanishviaskype.com. In this article we are going to learn how to express it using verbal periphrases.
Before we start, we should understand what a verbal periphrasis is. It is a group of verbs (usually two) that convey meanings that a single verb cannot.
Estoy comiendo / Voy a comer
The first verb is in personal form, with endings for each person, (estoy o voy) and the second in non-personal form, infinitive, gerund or participle, (comiendo o comer). Both verbs can be joined by connectors (a, de, que…) or not.
If you are interested in learning more about verbal periphrases, read our B1 level article Verbal Periphrasis in Spanish.
Now we are going to learn how to use these verb phrases for expressing obligation in Spanish.
Expressing Obligation in Spanish: Personal Form
We can differentiate two ways of expressing obligation in Spanish: a personal form and an impersonal form. When we specifically indicate the addressee of the obligation we can find these three verbal periphrases: tener que + infinitive, deber + infinitive and necesitar + infinitive.
Tener que + infinitive
We only need the present tense of the verb tener, the conjunction que and the infinitive of another verb.
Strictly speaking, tener que is used for expressing obligation in Spanish when it is externally imposed. That is, we do something because someone or something imposes it on us.
Lo siento, no puedo ir. Tengo que trabajar mañana.
Deber + infinitive
To form this periphrasis we use the present tense of the verb deber and the infinitive of another verb. As you can see, there is no linking word between the two verbs.
According to the Academia, deber is used for expressing obligation in Spanish when it is imposed internally. That is, the speaker imposes the obligation on himself, usually for moral, ethical or ideological reasons.
Sé que no debo hablar así a mis padres, pero no puedo evitarlo.
Despite these differences, today the verbal periphrasis tener prevails in everyday speech, including the uses we have seen for deber.
Necesitar + infinitive
The last personal periphrasis we are going to study is necesitar + infinitive. This verb group is conjugated in a similar way to the previous one. We are not going to use any connectors between the two verbs:
The biggest difference with the previous verbal periphrases, is that necesitar expresses obligations motivated by physical or psychic lacks (hunger, thirst, sadness, fear…) and whose action will produce a benefit in the person.
Lo siento, voy a parar porque necesito beber un poco de agua.
We have to be careful when translating the verb to need from English. This verb is used for more general obligations by English speakers. In many cases, the verb to need is translated as tener que or deber in Spanish and not as necesitar.
You need to be quiet! = ¡Tienes que estar en silencio!
Expressing obligation in Spanish: impersonal form
Expressing obligation in Spanish is possible without referring to a specific person. In that case, the obligation affects all the members present in the conversation or any person. Let’s look at two constructions.
Hay + que + infinitivo
The verbal periphrasis hay que uses the impersonal form of the verb haber. Our students and readers have previously studied this form to express the existence of something (Hay mucha gente en la calle). If you want to review this usage, you can read our article Está and hay in Spanish to express location.
Hay que limpiar la casa. No podemos vivir así.
Since it is an impersonal form, we do not change the verb ending.
Es necesario + infinitive
Although strictly speaking it is not a verbal periphrasis, we can also use this construction for expressing obligation in Spanish. As it happens with hay que, the form es necesario remains invariable, since it refers to non-specific persons.
Es necesario obtener el pasaporte para viajar a China.
As we can see, learning Spanish is not difficult. It is just a matter of putting into practice the contents you learn with your teachers at Spanishviaskype.com. If you want, you can do it in our conversation classes.