The difference between must, have to, and need to

Discussion in 'English Only' started by aymu, Jun 19, 2011.

  1. aymu New Member

    I'm not sure the difference between "must", "have to", and "need to".

    For example, when you hold a birthday party, which one of the following three
    is the most appropriate?

    1. I must invite some friends.
    2. I have to invite some friends.
    3. I need to invite some friends.
  2. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    "Must" and "have to" mean the same thing, Aymu. "Need" implies that the speaker has some personal reason for wanting these friends to be there. However, many speakers use "need" as another synonym for "must" or "have to":

    I need to get some gas.
    I must get some gas.
    I have to get some gas.

    All those sentences are possible and mean more or less the same thing.
  3. aymu New Member

    Thanks for your reply.

    Well, according to a famous TV program in Japan I watched, "must" and "have to" are a little bit different.

    I have to have my hair cut.
    I must have my hair cut.

    1. when my boss told me to do so... have to
    2. because of a school rule... have to
    3. when I don't like my hairstyle... must
    4. when I found hairs with split ends... must

    The teacher explained like this.

    Is that true?
  4. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    Hello, Aymu. I use both "must" and "have to" whether I'm the one who decides that something is necessary or someone else does. I've never heard anything about making a distinction between "must" and "have to" based on who it is that wants something done. I hear "have to" more often than "must" in colloquial language, but both of them mean the same thing to me.

    My hair is too long. I must get a haircut. I have to get a haircut. I need to get a haircut. I've got to get a haircut. "Must" would probably be the least likely choice in this situation. It sounds somewhat more formal to me than the other versions do.

    My boss told me to stay late and finish the report. I must stay late. I have to stay late. I've got to stay late. I need to stay late if I don't want to get fired. :)
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2011
  5. Archstudent Senior Member

    English - North London
    The way I see it, in contemporary colloquial english, must sounds more earnest, serious, perhaps more formal, perhaps more urgent. 'Need to' sounds the most casual, and have to sounds, as you noted, like perhaps you are obliged to do it, regardless of whether or not you want to or need to.

    In any case, if I was saying the phrase you've given in a colloquial context I would probably say "I've got to invite some friends". This will probably just confuse you, but thats what I imagine most people would say! To use must in this context would sound serious or formal, but in a self-parodying jovial tone.
  6. linguos

    linguos Senior Member

    I agree with aymu that foreign ESL students are taught that there is a distinction between must and have to and we are not allowed to fail to see it on a test or exam. ;)

  7. aymu New Member

    Yes, an English book I have says as linguos quoted too, and it seems to be more or less correct according to Archstudent.
    On the other hand, Owlman5 says there is no distinction between them in meaning...
    (Except that "must" is more formal)
    Possibly the difference between American English and British English...?
  8. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    And just what do you do for the past tense?

    To-day I must post this letter.
    I had to post that letter yesterday.

    I have to work late to-day.
    Yesterday I had to work late.
  9. aymu New Member

    "Must" doesn't have its past form, so we just have to use "had to" when you refer to the
    necessity in the past...

    We are taught like this in Japan.
  10. linguos

    linguos Senior Member

    Yeah, same here in Poland.

    When we refer to the past or the future we are told to use "had to" or "will have to" respectively. :)

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