What’s the difference between Tener que and hay que in Spanish?

As you probably already know, Spaniards really like to complicate things. They also want to be really specific about many things, and so they need 100 different words and expressions to say the same thing. Well, actually not quite the same thing, but we will get to that a bit later.

The problem that I am going to discuss with you today is about expressing obligation or necessity. In English we have modal verbs that help us with this matter. However, in Spanish, we have two expressions that basically mean the same thing: tener que and hay que. Well, not really, but this is what this post is all about. So, I guess that all you need are a pen and a piece of paper and lets get started.

Tener que in Spanish

Tener que + infinitive is as mentioned before, an expression used for either an obligation or a necessity. It could be translated into “have to”. To be more precise, it means that a person has to do something. In this case, the verb tener is conjugated according to the subject of your sentence. Below are some examples that will hopefully clarify the situation a bit.

  • Tengo que hacer mis deberes. (= I have to/need to do my homework.)
  • Mañana tenenemos que despertarnos temprano. (= We have to/ need to wake up early tomorrow.)
  • Juan tiene que lavar el coche. (= John has to/ needs to do wash the car.)

Hay que in Spanish

Hay que + infinitive is also used to express either an obligation or a necessity. So, why then do we really need to have two expressions to say the same thing? Well, remember how I said that we will get to this topic later. That “later” is finally here. The expression hay que + infinitive means “it should be done”. Here there is no subject and the expression stays the same.

  • Hay que tener cuidado con el fuego. (= It is necessary to be careful with the fire.)
  • Hay que aprender a hablar alemán para entenderlos. (= It is necessary to learn German in order to understand them.)
  • Hay que limpiar la casa. (= The house should be cleaned.)

Below is an example to help show the difference between the two expressions:

Juan ha manchado la camiseta. Ël tiene que lavarla. ( = John has stained the t-shirt. He has to wash it.)

La camiseta tiene una mancha. Hay que lavarla. (= The t-shirt has a stain on it. It should be washed.)

As you can see, Spanish language is not so hard after all. Even though the two expressions mean the same thing, there are different and help you understand the situation better. If you want another explanation for this grammar problem, do check this out. You also want to check out the blog post about the main differences between the indicative and the subjunctive. Why? Because this is one of the main errors that people make when learning Spanish.

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