What’s the difference between tener que vs deber vs hay que?
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Follow along with the video above, then confirm your understanding with the summary below and a few additional points to consider.
Tener que vs Deber vs Hay que
These three periphrases are used to express an obligation, as in “I have to do something “, or “one must do something”.
In essence, they all mean the same thing. However, the major difference between the expressions is simply whether or not it is directed personally or impersonally.
Both Tener que and Deber are considered personal, because they imply someone in particular has to or should do something, and they are conjugated using one of the 6 personal pronouns (Yo, tú, el, nosotros etc.). For example:
Tengo que ir = I have to go / I need to go
Debo estudiar = I must study
Meanwhile, hay que is used impersonally, implying that ‘one must’ or ‘one should’, as in:
Hay que comer desayuno cada mañana = One should eat breakfast every morning.
For more practice, check out the following examples:
Tener Que + Infinitivo:
Tengo que sacar la basura = I need to take out the trash
Tienes que estudiar para el examen = You have to study for the test
Tienen que comprar el vino = They need to buy the wine
Deber + Infinitivo:
Deberían hablar con sus padres = They should talk with his parents
Mario debe ser puntual = Maria has to be punctual
Nosotros debemos terminar los ejercicios = We must finish the exercises
Hay Que + Infinitivo:
Hay que estar atento = One must be attentive
Hay que ordenar la casa = One must organize the house
Hay que pedir permiso para entrar = One must ask permission to enter
A note about the English translation of deber and hay que
Deber can mean either should or must, which can significantly effect the meaning of the sentence. After all, consider telling someone they ‘should exercise’ and they ‘must exercise’.
The difference depends on the tense used. To express certainty as in ‘must‘ we use the verb deber conjugated in the present tense. If we want to represent ‘should‘, we use the verb deber conjugated in the conditional tense. For example:
Debes lavar tus ropas antes de lunes = You must wash your close before Monday
Ella debería acostarse temprano para recuperar de su resfriada = She should go to bed early to recover from her cold.
As we made clear prior, hay que is an impersonal use of an obligational periphrase, and is most often translated as ‘one must‘.
However, in English using the impersonal form has a more formal sentiment. In English we may often use ‘we’ or ‘you’ to express the general idea, because saying ‘one’ has a ‘stuffier’ feeling.
Hay que lavar sus maños antes de entrar = One must wash ones hands before entering = You must wash your hands before entering.
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