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  1. #1
    CarloSsS's Avatar
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    Default must vs. have to

    In grammar books, I read that "must" is most often used when the obligation comes from the speaker, while "have (got) to" is used when somebody else is the source of the obligation. However, listening to everyday AmE, I get the impression that native speakers (mostly AmE) don't differentiate between "must" and "have to" and use "have (got) to" most of the time whatever the source of the obligation. "Must" seems to be used mostly in formal contexts. Is that true? Do you see any differences between the following sentences? I don't differentiate between them much, and in normal speech I just use "have to" (I'm told most Americans do that too). I'm especially interested in AmE, but BrE point of view is welcomed too.

    I have (got) to clean my bedroom. (somebody else wants me to?)
    I must clean my bedroom. (I want to?)
    (do you see any difference between the two above?)

    Must you be making that noise? (formally "Do you have to be making that noise"?)
    Romeo must die. (formally "there's a need for Romeo to be dead?")

    Just to be clear, I have in mind the present or future affirmative meaning of "must" and "have to". I'm not talking about meanings like "I must have done it" or "I must not go there" etc.
    Please note that I'm not a teacher.

  2. #2
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    I would say in the language I speak and hear daily there are three differences:

    (1) In the affirmative, "must" is stronger than "have to".

    (2) In the negative, "must not" denotes an obligation not to do something, while "does not have to" denotes an absence of obligation to do something, in other words leaves the choice free.

    (3) The register of "must" is higher, more formal, than "have to", which should probably be avoided in formal writing. If you need something weaker than "must", say "ought to".

    PS. All your sentences are correct. The last two do sound literary, very cultivated. In the first two the "must clean" is the stronger, as I have said. By the way, "have got to" is even more casual than "have to", and if you want to descend to illiteracy, you could, I suppose, omit the "have" and say "I got to". In this case the contraction "I gotta" actually seems less illiterate, for it clearly marks a careless pronunciation and little else.
    Last edited by abaka; 28-Jun-2012 at 17:29.

  3. #3
    CarloSsS's Avatar
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    Quote Originally Posted by abaka View Post
    I would say in the language I speak and hear daily there are three differences:

    (1) In the affirmative, "must" is stronger than "have to".

    (2) In the negative, "must not" denotes an obligation not to do something, while "does not have to" denotes an absence of obligation to do something, in other words leaves the choice free.

    (3) The register of "must" is higher, more formal, than "have to", which should probably be avoided in formal writing. If you need something weaker than "must", say "ought to".
    Thank you. Please, could you (or somebody else) apply the logic (or their own logic) to the sentences I gave? What about the other things I asked, such as "I have to" = "Somebody else wants me to"? or "I must" = "I want to"?
    Last edited by CarloSsS; 28-Jun-2012 at 17:21.
    Please note that I'm not a teacher.

  4. #4
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    I've added a postscript that answers some of your questions.

    "I must" and "I have to" say nothing about who assigned the obligation.

    "I am to" is a clear assignment given to you by someone else.

    "I ought to" marks a moral obligation and therefore originates with you.

    "I want to" and "I will" are not obligations, but desires. There's a difference. The second one is a desire you are going to take action on -- which is why it's the future tense.

    "I shall" is a slightly old-fashioned way of stating an obligation that is going to be carried out, and is the other half of the English future tense.

    PS "I would" and "I should" are the conditional, subjunctive, and past forms of "will" and "shall" respectively, and so have a weaker, less emphatic modal sense than "shall" and "will". Therefore "I should" is very close to "I ought", and "I would" can be a very soft way of saying "I want to".
    Last edited by abaka; 28-Jun-2012 at 17:18.

  5. #5
    CarloSsS's Avatar
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    Thank you, that answers exactly what I wanted to know. That makes me wonder though, why some grammarians (like Swan or Murphy) say, that "must" means that the obligation is on the side of the speaker, while "have to" means that somebody else wants the speaker to do something. Does anybody have and idea why that is so? Did I misunderstand Swan and Murphy? Or is it because their point of view is a British one?
    Please note that I'm not a teacher.

  6. #6
    tzfujimino's Avatar
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    Hello.

    In the third edition (Practical English Usage - Michael Swan), on page 336, he says:
    "In statements about obligation with must the obligation most often comes from the speaker (and in questions, from the hearer). To talk about an obligation that comes from 'outside' (for instance a regulation, or an order from somebody else), we usually prefer have to."
    He also says:
    "Have to can also be used to talk about obligation coming from the speaker or hearer, in the same way as must. This is normal in American English (which uses must less often in this sense), and is becoming very common in British English."

  7. #7
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    Here is the BrE system as I see it:

    A. ‘Must’ suggests an internally felt obligation/necessity, ‘have to’ an externally imposed one:

    Mother to son:
    You must do your homework. (I say you must)
    You have to do your homework. (Your teacher and/or your future success require this)


    Swan and Murphy are British, which is why they say something similar.


    Neither verb is inherently stronger or more formal than the other.

    Three factors complicate the issue:

    1. With first person 'I', people sometimes use 'have to' when there is in fact an inner necessity or self requirement. They do this to suggest that the requirement comes from an outside authority, in order to give the impression that they are reluctant to do what is required:

    I have enjoyed talking to you, but I have to go.

    2. Some people seem to switch in speech from one form to a stressed verison of the other in order to add emphasis. This is why you occasionally hear/see, "Must is stronger than have to" and "Have to is stronger than must". It's no wonder that learners are sometimes confused.


    3. The negative forms of the two verbs convey very clearly different messages, as abaka pointed out. This difference in meanings is not present in the affirmative.

    4. ‘Must’ has no past tense form. We frequently use ‘had to’ when one is required, blurring the difference in the present tense for some people.

  8. #8
    Raymott's Avatar
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    Quote Originally Posted by CarloSsS View Post
    Thank you, that answers exactly what I wanted to know. That makes me wonder though, why some grammarians (like Swan or Murphy) say, that "must" means that the obligation is on the side of the speaker, while "have to" means that somebody else wants the speaker to do something. Does anybody have and idea why that is so? Did I misunderstand Swan and Murphy? Or is it because their point of view is a British one?
    In general, 'must' means 'have to'. I don't agree that 'must' is necessarily stronger than 'have to' - I would need to see the context.
    In the context you've given:
    I have (got) to clean my bedroom. (somebody else wants me to?)
    I must clean my bedroom. (I want to?)
    Not necessarily 'want to', but you feel obliged to.
    I'd say that "have to" is stronger. And yes there is, at least in AusE, some tendency toward the meanings you've given.
    Given that tendency, the obligation to clean your bedroom is probably stronger if someone in authority is making you do it, and intends punishing you if you don't.
    "Must" can be very weak. "Hmm, I'm gaining weight; I must stop eating ice cream." This type of 'must' has virtually no obligation attached to it.

    Without looking at Swan or Murphy, I'd guess that they don't say exactly what you've written, and that you've left out some qualifications. Can you give me the page number of Swan?

  9. #9
    CarloSsS's Avatar
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    Thank you 5, it helped me a lot.
    Quote Originally Posted by 5jj View Post

    Neither verb is inherently stronger or more formal than the other.

    LDOCE says this:

    In everyday English, people usually say someone has to or has to to so something rather than say they must do something, which can sound slightly formal or emphatic.
    What should I make of that? That sometimes for some speakers "must" is actually more formal?
    Last edited by CarloSsS; 28-Jun-2012 at 18:14.
    Please note that I'm not a teacher.

  10. #10
    Raymott's Avatar
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    Default Re: must vs. have to

    Quote Originally Posted by CarloSsS View Post

    What should I make of that? That sometimes for some speakers "must" is actually more formal?
    I make of it that it's a generalization that is more or less true, but not very useful - as you've already found.
    Yes, if a person is talking about another person (3rd person), "He must go to work tomorrow" does sound less natural (perhaps formal - though I wouldn't call it that) than "He has to go to work tomorrow".

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