'must' vs. 'have to'

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ink-heart

Member
Germany - German
Hi,

I searched this forum before posting, and there are quite some threads as to the use of 'must', 'should' and 'have to' but none that really tells me what I'd like to know.

My example: He must/has to obey his boss.

I would always prefer 'has to' in this context because this is not about a personal need but something you are obliged to do because of other people's expectations. But in the last time I seem to have heard 'must' more and more often in contexts like this. Is there maybe a difference between British/American/other varieties of English?
 
  • Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    In my opinion, the difference is simply a matter of formality. For example, if two employees are in the coffee room of the office talking about a third employee, I would expect to hear the more casual "He's going to get fired if he isn't careful. He has to obey his boss".

    On the other hand, if the Human Resources Manager is writing a formal report on the problem with the employee, I would expect to hear "He must obey his boss."

    "Must" is more formal than "has to" and has a more authoritative tone to it.
     

    Frank78

    Senior Member
    German
    You should be aware of the negation, there´s a difference:
    "must not" means you are not allowed to do something, "don´t have to" you don´t need to do something.
     

    sukepeth

    Member
    English -American
    "Must" would imply a sense of moral obligation, which would be unlikely in most circumstances. "Have to" doesn't have that same sense. Frank78 also has a point about the negation of the two.
     

    ink-heart

    Member
    Germany - German
    "Must" would imply a sense of moral obligation, which would be unlikely in most circumstances. "Have to" doesn't have that same sense. Frank78 also has a point about the negation of the two.
    Yes, I think there's no difficulty about the negation. The 'moral obligation' aspect is more what I was getting at. Actually I wanted to verify if what I learned at school is (still) true: that 'must' is used for something from 'inside' the person and 'have to' for something from the 'outside' :).
     

    Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    The 'moral obligation' aspect is more what I was getting at.
    I still maintain that in the brief context given, there's no difference. It depends on who's saying it, what the scenario is, etc.

    "He must obey his boss" doesn't give me any more sense of moral obligation than does "He has to obey his boss". I don't know who's saying this or why. I don't know whether he's being officially reprimanded about his work or whether this is idle office gossip. If it were the employee saying it ("I must obey my boss"), I might concur on the difference but, as it stands, alone and without further context, I see no difference.
     

    ink-heart

    Member
    Germany - German
    I still maintain that in the brief context given, there's no difference. It depends on who's saying it, what the scenario is, etc.
    Hmm, I'll try to make it a bit more explicit: "He must/has to obey his boss. If he doesn't do what his boss tells him, he'll be sacked." Would this be a decisive factor for one of the words?
     

    Imladris

    Senior Member
    Turkey - Turkish
    Hmm, I'll try to make it a bit more explicit: "He must/has to obey his boss. If he doesn't do what his boss tells him, he'll be sacked." Would this be a decisive factor for one of the words?
    Here is my take:

    Speaking as the boss: You must obey me. If you don't, you'll be sacked.
    Speaking as the coworker: You have to obey the boss. If you don't, you'll be sacked.

    I hope a native speaker can tell us what happens if "must" and "have to" change places in the above sentences?
     

    Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    Hmm, I'll try to make it a bit more explicit: "He must/has to obey his boss. If he doesn't do what his boss tells him, he'll be sacked." Would this be a decisive factor for one of the words?
    Not in my opinion. One of the meanings of "must" is "to be obliged to" or "to be compelled to", "need to". In my mind, this means the same thing as "he has to".

    Look at it this way:

    Boss: "You must obey me or you'll be fired"
    Boss: "You have to obey me or you'll be fired"

    In this context, what is the difference?
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    My view is the same as Dimcl's.

    Here is the British Council's Learning English site on must vs have to. It coincides with my experience of AmE:
    Both must and have to can be used to speak about obligation or necessity:
    = The doctor says I must stop smoking.
    = The doctor says I have (got) to stop smoking.​
    As they say, this is true of must and have to in the present tense. There are differences in their use in the future and past tenses.
    The issue has been discussed in numerous threads. Here is one: must vs have to - a definitive answer

    You will find more among the threads you will see if you put must have to in the Dictionary Look-up box at the top of the page (set to English definition), or click on the link I made.
     

    Nymeria

    Senior Member
    English - Barbadian/British/educated in US universities blend
    I have never heard of any distinction between the two regarding one coming from the "inside" or the "outside" and one as a "moral obligation" or one showing "authority" etc. As far as I am concerned and as far as I use the terms, they are generally interchangeable. One simply sounds a bit more formal. I agree with Dimcl.
     

    ink-heart

    Member
    Germany - German
    Thanks for all your answers and for the links, Cagey. They really helped. So this seems to be a 'rule' I can safely forget. I wonder how such things come about to be taught with such vigour in the first place. :rolleyes:
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Thanks for all your answers and for the links, Cagey. They really helped. So this seems to be a 'rule' I can safely forget. I wonder how such things come about to be taught with such vigour in the first place. :rolleyes:
    I don't think you should forget the rule completely.
    Although in this context there is little or no difference, in other contexts the rule fairly reflects how we use must/have to.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The opening post asked if there was a BE/AE difference here. It can be hard for me (a BE speaker) to tell because I may not have come across the form in AE, and vice versa for an AE speaker.

    The fact that natives of both languages seem to agree with the British Council's Learning English site on must vs have to linked by Cagey suggests there isn't a great difference.

    I didn't agree with Imladris's statement

    Imladris said:
    I think "must" always implies an authority on the speaker's part.
    When my son tell me that he must sign in for work at eight in the morning, he is not the authority which is insisting on this. Maybe I misunderstood what Imladris was saying, because I don't often disagree with him.
     

    ink-heart

    Member
    Germany - German
    I don't think you should forget the rule completely.
    Although in this context there is little or no difference, in other contexts the rule fairly reflects how we use must/have to.
    Oh dear, and I thought I had finally managed to get rid of it. ;) Could you help me out with an example (no negations, no past tenses etc.) in which it does play a role, please?
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    My car is dirty.
    I must wash my car.
    I don't have to wash it, but I want to because it looks better clean.

    In a few months' time, just before its annual test:
    My car is dirty.
    I have to wash my car.
    The instructions for the test say that the car must be clean.

    Edit:
    As you can see, in the explanation of each I used the other. That was accidental - but now that I look at it I still think it looks right :)
     

    ink-heart

    Member
    Germany - German
    My car is dirty.
    I must wash my car.
    I don't have to wash it, but I want to because it looks better clean.

    In a few months' time, just before its annual test:
    My car is dirty.
    I have to wash my car.
    The instructions for the test say that the car must be clean.
    Thank you, this is exactly the kind of differentiation I was always told to make. Would it be correct to say that this is relevant only in first person singular sentences?
     

    Imladris

    Senior Member
    Turkey - Turkish
    The opening post asked if there was a BE/AE difference here. It can be hard for me (a BE speaker) to tell because I may not have come across the form in AE, and vice versa for an AE speaker.

    The fact that natives of both languages seem to agree with the British Council's Learning English site on must vs have to linked by Cagey suggests there isn't a great difference.

    I didn't agree with Imladris's statement


    When my son tell me that he must sign in for work at eight in the morning, he is not the authority which is insisting on this. Maybe I misunderstood what Imladris was saying, because I don't often disagree with him.
    Hi, Thomas. I'm not a native speaker and my English reflects mostly what I've learned from books, one of which is English Grammar in Use by Rymond Murphy. In that grammar such a distinction is made but some native speakers think Murphy likes to look at language from a white-black perspective without paying attention to grey tones. This distinction is made in grammar books, especially in BrE oriented ones.
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    (1) I really have to stop playing in the forums, and get to the pile of trees that need cutting.
    (2) I really must stop playing in the forums, and get to the pile of trees that need cutting.

    As an AE speaker, I am more likely to say (1) in conversation, but might use (2) in a note to a friend. The meaning, for me, is identical. The tone is slightly more formal in (2). There is no moral issue. Both describe an internal sense of need, not obligation: If I want to be warm next winter, I need to cut firewood now. If I were cutting wood to fulfill a customer order, both would carry a sense of moral and economic obligation.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    (1) I really have to stop playing in the forums, and get to the pile of trees that need cutting.
    (2) I really must stop playing in the forums, and get to the pile of trees that need cutting.

    As an AE speaker, I am more likely to say (1) in conversation, but might use (2) in a note to a friend. The meaning, for me, is identical. The tone is slightly more formal in (2). There is no moral issue. Both describe an internal sense of need, not obligation: If I want to be warm next winter, I need to cut firewood now. If I were cutting wood to fulfill a customer order, both would carry a sense of moral and economic obligation.
    In post 20 Ink-heart wondered if there was a difference between the force of the two formulae in the first person singular as opposed to other parts of the conjugation. I think there may be something in this:

    1. I really have to stop playing in the forums...
    1a. He really has to stop playing in the forums...

    2. I really must stop playing in the forums...
    2a. He really must stop playing in the forums...

    Cuchu says that he is more likely to use 1 than 2 in conversation: I'd say the opposite.
    Cuchu say that he'd be more likely to use 2 in a note to a friend and that the tone is slightly more formal in 2: I'd say the opposite.

    Cuchu says that both describe an internal sense of need not obligation: I would agree, but wonder if that stems from that really in the sentence. Remove the really, and what is the difference? I have to stop playing in the forums could well carry the force of obligation imposed by an external authority, as could I must stop playing the forums, though that carries it less easily, to my ear, so there may well be something in the 'rule'.

    As to the difference between 1a and 2a: I would be much more likely to use 1a in conversation, I think, though a lot depends on the context.
    Take away the really and the sense of prohibition (of externally generated obligation) becomes stronger, and, for me, 1a carries greater prohibitive force than 2a, again confirming the 'rule'.

    I wonder if my reactions to Cuchu's statements suggest the difference between AE and BE use the OP was concerned with.
     
    Last edited:

    ink-heart

    Member
    Germany - German
    Thank you for the detailed answer, Thomas. :) I hope this doesn't sound silly, but I think the subject is really exciting. There seem to be quite a few differences between native speakers from different regions but maybe also differences in individual use and in awareness of slight variations of meaning. This could be the stuff for a thesis. ;)

    One result for me is that it doesn't make sense to set too much store by the distinction I was prompted to make at school. Another is that I'd love to hear more people's opinions - if there were enough answers, maybe we could find a kind of pattern for using the two 'variations'.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I think "must" always imply an authority on the speaker's part. The speaker has the full authority of what s/he is saying. On the other hand, "have to" is used to remind somebody of others' authority. However, this observation needs the confirmation of native speakers.
    Here is my take:

    Speaking as the boss: You must obey me. If you don't, you'll be sacked.
    Speaking as the coworker: You have to obey the boss. If you don't, you'll be sacked.

    I hope a native speaker can tell us what happens if "must" and "have to" change places in the above sentences?
    I think Imladris is on to something really interesting here: with "must" the compulsion comes from the speaker, whether the speaker is the person under the obligation or not.

    Whereas with "have to", the compulsion may well come from somewhere else: the bosses, the system, the timetable...

    When my son tell me that he must sign in for work at eight in the morning, he is not the authority which is insisting on this.
    TT, If I had a son (which I haven't), I wouldn't expect him to tell me that he must sign in for work at eight in the morning...

    I'd expect him to say either "I have to sign in at eight o'clock in the morning" (that's what my employers expect) or "I must get to work at eight o'clock tomorrow morning" (they're having free bacon and egg in the canteen, so I really want to be there).
     
    Last edited:

    Ynez

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    ink-heart, modern books focus on the formal/informal difference (formal =must/informal= have to). I was also taught the internal/external difference, so I know what you are talking about. :)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    [...]
    Originally Posted by Thomas Tompion
    When my son tells me that he must sign in for work at eight in the morning, he is not the authority which is insisting on this.

    TT, If I had a son (which I haven't), I wouldn't expect him to tell me that he must sign in for work at eight in the morning...

    I'd expect him to say either "I have to sign in at eight o'clock in the morning" (that's what my employers expect) or "I must get to work at eight o'clock tomorrow morning" (they're having free bacon and egg in the canteen, so I really want to be there).
    Now you've surprised me again, Loob.

    My boys often said things like: I must be there by four o'clock (could be either an obligation imposed by the speaker on himself, or one imposed from outside); I must see the neighbours before I leave (probably imposed by the speaker); I must sign in for work at eight in the morning (probably imposed from outside). It seems to me to be the most normal way of talking one could imagine.

    What are the rules about signing on for work? I must get to the office no later than eight o'clock. I'm not saying that I have to get to the office etc. is out of the question - it would be entirely normal as well, but the formula with must is just as idiomatic to my ear.

    Here it seems to me that the nature of the obligation springs less from the chosen formula than from the context.
     

    thoroughlyconfused

    Member
    English - Canada
    I don't think there is.
    I agree with Dimcl and Cagey.
    Same here. There may be, in certain circumstances, some slight difference in nuance, but I shan't like to nail it down precisely.

    Moreover, there is an additional factor which forces a fairly strong equivalence of "must" and "have to", namely that the former has no infinitive form and thus when needed one must use "to have to".
     

    thoroughlyconfused

    Member
    English - Canada
    Thank you for the detailed answer, Thomas. :) I hope this doesn't sound silly, but I think the subject is really exciting. There seem to be quite a few differences between native speakers from different regions but maybe also differences in individual use and in awareness of slight variations of meaning. This could be the stuff for a thesis. ;)
    I remain thoroughly unconvinced of the differences in meaning. I would say that the greater authoritativeness/urgency of "must" over "have to" stems from it having half as many syllables. (Similarly, I would say that "have to" is stronger than "have got to".) In English, and in other languages, shorter expressions typically carry more force.
     

    sevengem

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Yes, I think there's no difficulty about the negation. The 'moral obligation' aspect is more what I was getting at. Actually I wanted to verify if what I learned at school is (still) true: that 'must' is used for something from 'inside' the person and 'have to' for something from the 'outside' :).
    I agree with inkheart on this point. You think you should do something when you use "must". But you are required to do it when you use "have to", even though you may be unwilling to.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    I find it more natural to use have to unless in my mind the matter is settled. To me, have to leaves a tiny bit more "wiggle room", no matter who says it about whom or about what.
     

    hoodnotwood

    Member
    German-Italy
    <-----Thread has been merged at this point.----->

    Hello.
    Could somebody explain the difference between the use of must and have to also with examples please? I just know that must is used for personal obbligations e.g. I must call my mom. But is it also used for the 3rd person in these ways: 1) Jimmy must call his mom.
    2) Lauren said she must call her mom later.
    Or do I need to usw have to with these exampled because they don't refer to me
    so they are not personal but rather general? So would it be "Jimmy has to call his mom" and "Lauren said he has to call her mom later." be more appropriate?
     
    Last edited by a moderator:

    Forero

    Senior Member
    <-----Thread has been merged at this point.----->

    Hello.
    Could somebody explain the difference between the use of must and have to also with examples please? I just know that must is used for personal obligations e.g. I must call my mom. But is it also used for the 3rd person in these ways: 1) Jimmy must call his mom.
    2) Lauren said she must call her mom later.
    Or do I need to use have to with these examples because they don't refer to me
    so they are not personal but rather general? So would "Jimmy has to call his mom" and "Lauren said he has to call her mom later." be more appropriate?
    No. They are all good sentences, and the choice of verb does not tell us whether the obligation in question is personal or imposed by somebody else.

    "Have to" is longer, more common, and less forceful. "Must" is shorter, less common, and more absolute.

    "Have to" has a full set of forms (everything except imperative): "He has to call today", "He had to call yesterday", "He is going to have to call soon", "He will have to call tomorrow", "He has had to call many times", "Unfortunately, he is still having to call every hour, on the hour", etc.

    "Must" is defective. It has only the form "must": no past participle, no present participle, no gerund, no infinitive (and no imperative). Its past tense is the same as its present tense, so "Lauren said she must call her mom later" can mean either "Lauren said she has to call her mom later" or "Lauren said she had to call her mom later".
     
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