Spanish Lessons


Imperative Constructions

The Spanish constructions haber + de, tener + que, hay + que, and deber + infinitive are all used to express that something demands attention or action: an obligation, requirement, or necessity. Let's review some examples to learn the subtle differences between them and how to properly use them.


The construction haber + de + infinitive is used to express a mild sense of obligation or necessity (in some contexts it could be just a possibility). Its use is, therefore, preferred when you want to give an instruction in a very polite way, making it sound more like a suggestion than an order. For example, in one of our new videos Raquel uses haber de + infinitive repeatedly to share some entrepreneurial tips:

En primer lugar, hemos de definir nuestra estrategia.

In the first place, we have to define our strategy.

Caption 5, Raquel y Marisa - Español Para Negocios - Introducción

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Básicamente, en esta parte, hemos de definir qué vamos a publicar en cada red social.

Basically, in this part, we have to define what we are going to publish on each social network.

Captions 8-9, Raquel y Marisa - Español Para Negocios - Introducción

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Additionally, by using the first person plural, hemos, Raquel gives a subtle aura of consensus to her advice, which stresses the idea that even when she is using an imperative expression, she is not giving an order but rather sharing advice. If she were to use, for example, the second person, the expression would have a bit more pressing or demanding tone:

Lo primero que has de hacer al reservar en un restaurante es...

The first thing that you have to do upon reserving at a restaurant is...

Caption 3, Raquel - Reserva de Restaurante

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Here's another example with a twist, using negation:

Y no ha de faltarle nunca un sanconcho de ñato pa' rematar.

And you should never lack a snub-nosed fish stew to add the finishing touch.

Caption 14, Mary Grueso Romero - Platonera en la plaza del mercado

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You could also add the word uno (one), to talk impersonally. For example:

Uno ha de hacer aquello que desea.
One must do whatever one wants.

Incidentally, there is one Spanish imperative construction that only uses the impersonal form to express needs, obligations, or requirements in a more generalized way: hay + que infinitive.

¡Eres una víbora a la que hay que quitarle la ponzoña!

You're a snake from which it's necessary to remove the venom!

Caption 27, El Ausente - Acto 3 - Part 7

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Or for everyday tasks at hand:

Pues hay que diseñar unos 'flyers'.

So, we have to design some flyers.

Caption 58, Arturo Vega - Entrevista - Part 5

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On the other hand, to convey a higher grade or urgency, necessity, or imperativeness, the expressions tener + que + infinitive and deber + infinitive* come in handy. The difference between deber and tener is subtle: the use of deber confers a sense of duty or moral imperativeness to the expression, while tener is better suited to talk about more practical matters.

You can also use these constructions in an impersonal way, adding the word uno (one):

Ya, cuando a uno le toca ser papá, pues, uno tiene que reflexionar sobre eso.

Then, when it's time for one to be a dad, well, one has to reflect on that.

Caption 8, La Sub30 - Familias - Part 13

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[If you want to use the verb deber you would say: uno debe reflexionar (one must reflect)]


Or you can use the first person for more particular and pressing needs:

Ahora tenemos que hablar de precio.

Now we have to talk about price.

Caption 74, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos - Part 11

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[If you were to use the verb deberdebemos hablar de precio (we must talk about price)]



*By the way, the use of deber de + infinitive in imperative statements (such as debes de comer, meaning "you must eat") is common but grammatically incorrect. The use of deber de + infinitive is correct when used to express probability. 

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