The Key to Using Modal Verbs in Spanish Grammar
Have you struggled looking for help in how to use modal verbs in Spanish? Did you get confused because you found different information on different websites? Did you get puzzled that many of them translate with the same English words but are used in totally different scenarios? Did some of them look too similar to use them correctly?
Your days of searching are over!
If you’re interested in using modal verbs in Spanish, you’re likely already advanced in your grammar studies. And believe me, you’re absolutely ready to jump into this fascinating world of modal verbs—and I’ll help you to navigate it clearly and with confidence.
I’ll explain to you what modal verbs in Spanish are and how they are different from modal verbs in other languages. I’ll show you how to use them and what structures you should follow. After reading this article, you’ll not only know how to translate modal verbs in Spanish into English, and vice versa, but most importantly in what context you should use each one of them.
You’ll also have an opportunity to check your knowledge in some exercises and read a bigger chunk of text full of modal verbs.
Excited? Let’s start!
What are Modal Verbs in Spanish?
First of all, modal verbs in Spanish are different from modal verbs in English or German. In these two languages, we can talk about closed and definite groups of verbs that can express obligation, permission, and probability among other nuances. They are usually not conjugated, meaning that their form stays the same, no matter what grammatical person we’re talking about.
Only three verbs are properly called modal verbs in Spanish by grammar purists:
- poder (can)
- deber (have to, must)
- soler (be accustomed to)
But all three belong to a bigger group called “verbal periphrases” that work like modal verbs.
Verbal periphrasis is a combination of two or more verbs that change their meaning when used together. For example: quiero cantar (I want to sing), or tengo que salir (I have to go out).
In opposition to English modal verbs, in Spanish you will conjugate the first verb of the periphrasis and leave the second one in its infinitive form. If you want to have a quick look at infinitives, check out What is an Infinitive in Spanish?
There are three types of verbal periphrasis that work like modal verbs in Spanish.
- Verb + infinitive – saber, querer, poder, deber, soler
- Verb + que + infinitive – tener, haber
- Verb + de + infinitive – deber
Do you want to see what they mean and how to use them?
8 Modal Verbs in Spanish
Let’s forget about three groups and agree that there are mainly 8 modal verbs in Spanish.
They all modify an infinitive, and their meaning can change depending on whether you use them in the affirmative or negative forms.
Saber translates to English as “know” or “can” and you’ll use it to talk about somebody’s knowledge or ability.
Sé hablar cinco idiomas.
I can speak five languages.
No sé bailar.
I don’t know how to dance.
Supe cómo hacerlo.
I figured out how to do it.
He sabido manejar la situación hasta ahora.
I’ve been able to handle the situation so far.
Querer is the equivalent of English “want to,” and you use it to express a desire or its lack.
Quiero viajar a América Latina.
I want to travel to Latin America.
No quiero molestarte pero tengo una pregunta.
I don’t want to bother you but I have one question.
Quise terminarlo a tiempo pero vino mi amiga.
I wanted to finish it on time but my friend came.
Quería dormir pero mi perro no me dejaba.
I wanted to sleep but my dog wouldn’t let me.
Siempre he querido aprender español.
I have always wanted to learn Spanish.
Poder is another of the modal verbs in Spanish that you can use to talk about ability, similar to saber, but you also use it to talk about possibility and permission. It can be translated to “can” or “be able to.”
Can you help me?
No pude hacerlo, fue demasiado difícil.
I couldn’t do it, it was too difficult.
No puedes hacerlo. Te lo prohibo.
You can’t do it. I forbid you.
He podido acabar la tarea.
I have been able to finish the task.
What’s the difference between saber and poder when talking about abilities if you translate both with the same word “can”?
Saber is more about knowing how to do something and poder is simply being able to do something but also willing and available to do it.
¿Sabes tocar la guitarra?
Can you play the guitar? (Do you know how to do it?)
¿Puedes tocar la guitarra?
Can you play the guitar? (Are you available and willing to play the guitar?)
You use poder in conditional tense (podría), and sometimes in the imperfect tense too (podía), to ask for permission in a polite way. It’s like using “could” in English.
¿Podría hacerme un favor?
Could you do me a favor?
¿Podía usted cerrar la ventana?
Could you close the window?
If you want to express moral or legal obligation, you’ll use deber in Spanish, and you translate it with “have to,” “must,” or “should.” When you use it in negative form, it means “not have to,” or “shouldn’t.” You’ll say it to give recommendations. To be clear, it will never translate to English as “mustn’t”!
In a conditional sense, debería becomes even weaker and it’s more like “should” and “ought to” rather than “must.”
Debes caminar 10 mil pasos al día para estar sano.
You should/must walk 10,000 steps a day to be healthy.
No debes salir sin gorro al frío.
You shouldn’t go out without a hat in the cold.
No debí haberme metido en este asunto.
I shouldn’t have gotten in this matter.
Deberías prestar más atención.
You should pay more attention.
Soler means to “do something normally,” “tend to,” or “be accustomed.” It’s an expression you’ll use to talk about habits.
Suelo tomar café antes de mi desayuno.
I normally have coffee before my breakfast.
No suelo ver la tele.
I don’t usually watch TV.
Antes solía caminar por la playa todos los días.
Before, I used to walk on the beach every day.
Tener que is even stronger than deber and you’ll use it to express obligation and necessity. You translate it with “have to” or “must,” but it conveys a sense of external obligation rather than internal. Once again, in negative form it won’t mean “mustn’t” but simply lack of obligation or necessity.
Tengo que irme ya.
I have to go now.
No tienes que hacerlo si no quieres.
You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.
Tenía tanta prisa que tuve que salir sin desayunar.
I was in such a hurry that I had to leave without breakfast.
Cuando era chiquita, tenía que ir a dormir antes de las 8 pm.
When I was little, I had to go to sleep before 8pm.
Tendrás que hablarle para solucionar esto.
You will have to talk to him to fix this.
Haber que is an impersonal verb meaning you can only use in the third person singular. It expresses necessity and obligation but without naming a specific person.
Hay que reciclar.
You have to recycle. / It’s necessary to recycle.
No hay que esforzarse tanto, ya casi son vacaciones.
There is no necessity to try so hard, it’s almost vacation.
Hubo que llamar a los bomberos.
The fire department had to be called. / It was necessary to call the firefighters.
Había que hacer algo, pero nadie quería ser el primero.
Something had to be done, but nobody wanted to be the first.
If you add de to the verb haber, it’ll also express obligation and you can use it with all grammatical persons. However, it’s not that common in modern speech. You’ll rather use deber or tener que.
He de trabajar duro.
I have to work hard.
No he de callar.
I will not be silent.
Habré de conformarme.
I will have to conform.
El viaje ha de tomar esta pequeña carretera secundaria.
The journey has to take this small secondary road.
Andrés hubo de repetir el examen.
Andrés had to repeat the exam.
¿Por qué habría de enfadarme, si no me hizo nada malo?
Why should I be angry if he didn’t do anything wrong to me?
Deber de is often confused with deber. It follows the same structure and you translate it with the same words (must, have to, should) but the meaning is very different. I told you earlier that deber is used to express legal and moral obligation and deber de is for strong probability and deduction.
Frankly speaking, you will hear many native Spanish speakers confuse these verbs too, and they can even try to convince you it’s OK, but don’t believe them. There is a huge difference between obligation and probability.
Let’s compare these two:
Ana debió de hacerlo.
She probably did it.
Ana debió hacerlo.
Ana should have done it.
The first sentence talks about the most likely scenario and the second one about obligation and responsibility. Can you see the difference? Debiste de entender la diferencia. (You probably understood the difference.)
Let’s see some more examples with deber de:
No sé dónde está Paula, debería de estar aquí.
I don’t know where Paula is, she’s probably around here.
Llaman a la puerta; debe de ser el cartero.
Somebody is knocking; it must be the mailman.
Deben de ser las 3 de la tarde.
It must be 3 in the afternoon.
Él siempre tenía la mejor ropa, sus padres debían de ganar mucho dinero.
He always had the best clothes, his parents must have been making a lot of money.
Modal Verbs in Spanish: Exercises
Now that you know the rules, try doing the following exercise. I’m sure, you’ll get most of them (if not all!) correct.
Choose one of the two options to fill in the sentences with the correct modal verb:
1. __________ estudiar chino porque me encanta.
2. __________ estudiar chino porque voy a ir a la Universidad en Beijing.
3. Arturo __________ llegar muy puntual a la oficina.
4. Marco __________ avisar a su mamá que llegará tarde, si no se va a enojar con él.
- debe de
5. __________ tomar un baño cuando estoy estresada.
6. ¿Por qué hay tanto ruido? __________ ser la lluvia.
- debe de
7. __________ irme. Me esperan.
- tengo que
8. Pablo __________mudarse a otro país. Le ofrecieron un trabajo ahí y no le quedaba de otra.
- debió de
- hubo de
9. __________ tomar precauciones durante la época de huracanes.
- hay que
- debes de
10. Hoy __________ comprar comida para el gato. Te toca a ti.
- hay que
- tienes que
Click here for the translation of the quiz and to check your answers.
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- I want to study Chinese because I love it.
- I must study Chinese because I am going to university in Beijing.
- Arturo usually arrives on time at the office.
- Marco must tell his mother that he will be late, if not, she’s going to get mad at him.
- I usually take a bath when I’m stressed.
- Why is there so much noise? It must be the rain.
- I have to go. They are waiting for me.
- Pablo had to move to another country. They offered him a job there and he ha dno other choice.
- Precautions must be taken during hurricane season.
- Today you have to buy food for the cat. It’s your turn.
Did you get them right? Good job!