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Published on: Grammar Bites

Phrases of obligation: Tener que & hay que

Verb phrases are formed by an auxiliary verb such as tener, haber, deber, etc. (to have, have, should, etc.)with our without the use of the pronoun que- and a main verb. When using verb phrases, we conjugate the auxiliary verb only.

In Spanish we have two very common, very practical verb phrases to help us express obligation. Let’s have a look!

Structure It expresses Example
Tener que + infinitivo

(To have to + infinitive)

Obligation Tienes que hacer la tarea. You have to do your homework.

No puedo ir a la fiesta. Tengo que completar la presentación para el lunes. I can’t go the party. I have to complete the presentation for Monday.

Hay que + infinitivo

(To have to + infinitive)

The need to do something Hay que comprar leche; no queda más. We have to get milk; we’re out.

Hay que cambiar el foco de la lámpara . We need to change the lamp’s lightbulb.


Notice that while both phrases some type of obligation there are some key differences:

When using ‘tener que’, we indicate who has to fulfill an obligation (‘tú tienes que hacer la tarea’ / ‘yo tengo que completar la presentación’).

However, when we use ‘hay que’, we’re just expressing a need / obligation that someone has to fulfill. We’re not singling out anyone in particular: ‘Hay que comprar la leche’ means someone has to do it; it could be me, you, or someone else.

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