You must read this! (‘Have to’ or ‘must’?)

by Kate Woodford
In these blogs we make a point of looking at areas that often cause difficulties for learners of English. This week we are considering how we talk about obligation – the fact that we must do something, either because of a rule or some other need. We will start with the differences between ‘have to/need to’ and ‘must’, and when we use one and not the other.

Have to/Need to

The first thing to say is that if we want to talk about something that it is necessary to do, ‘have to’ and ‘need to’, (followed by the infinitive of the main verb), generally sound correct and natural:

You have to/need to be there for eight o’clock.

I have to/need to get some money out.

You have to/need to get a form from the office.


‘Must’ is also used to talk about what is necessary, though it can sound urgent in a way that ‘have to’ and ‘need to’ generally do not. People often use ‘must’ to say that it is necessary that they themselves do something. They are reminding themselves to do a very important thing:

I must call my mum tonight!

I must remember to pay Emily for the ticket!

Another use of ‘must’, (often in speech), is when we suggest very strongly that someone we know well should do something, often because we know they will like it, or be helped by it. We are recommending something to someone, or advising them, but in a very definite way:

It’s a brilliant movie – you must see it, Tom.

Ooh, you must try this chicken – it’s delicious!

You look so tired, Lucy. You must get some rest!

When ‘must’ is used to talk about a rule or standard that is necessary, it is likely to be in an official context:

All participants must be 21 or older.

Applicants must have a strong command of the English language.

Meat must be cooked thoroughly.

Past and future tenses

Note that ‘must’ can only be used in the present tense. To talk about something necessary in the past or the future, use ‘have to’ or ‘need to’:

I had to catch the train so I left early.

You will need to tell Jim.

‘Must not’ or ‘do not have/need to’?

Remember that these negative forms of ‘must’ and ‘have to/need to’ mean something completely different. Must not is used for talking about something that it is necessary not to do:

We must not forget our past.

We really mustn’t miss that train!

You mustn’t tell Alice – she would be so upset.

The negative form of ‘have/need to’, (not have/need to), is used for saying that there is no need to do something. We can do that thing if we want to, but it is not necessary:

There will be food at the party so we don’t have/need to bring any.

You can come if you like, but you don’t have/need to.

Do I have to?/Must I?

To form a question with ‘have to’ and ‘need to’, we use the auxiliary verb, ‘do’:

Do you have to pay for the service?

Does Maria need to buy a ticket in advance?

‘Must’ can also be used in a question form, (‘Must I …?’/Must we …?’) but it is less common and sounds quite formal:

(formal) Must we all attend?

Have to and have got to

Note that British speakers of English often say have got to instead of ‘have to’. When speaking, they usually abbreviate the ‘have’ part:

I’ve got to (= I have got to) finish this essay this afternoon.

Note that ‘have got to’ can only be used in the present tense.

27 thoughts on “You must read this! (‘Have to’ or ‘must’?)

  1. Pingback: You must read this! (‘Have to’ or ‘must’?) | About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog | misskatiek2012's Blog

  2. Salman Iqbal

    The sentence, Applicants must have a strong command of the English language, doesn’t sound quite right to me. We might say, for example, “Islam is the command of Allah”, or perhaps that the law is the command of the sovereign. But is the logical relationship between “applicants” and “the English language” the same as that between “law” and “the sovereign”?

  3. Luc007

    “Note that ‘have got to’ can only be used in the present tense.”

    At the risk of being obnoxious, may I suggest that “have got to” is in the “present perfect” tense, not in the “present” tense ? 😉

  4. Pingback: Verbs (lexis) | ELT Infodump

  5. Tanks you for the post, it has been a useful reminder of the necessety for checking-up on every leaner’s clarity in this area of the grammar.

    1. Darko Velic

      Must is used to recommend, suggest sth to someone e.g.
      You must see this movie. Hence, how come I can hear and watch the following tourist commercial on TV and YouTube:
      You HAVE TO visit Croatia.
      Thank you in advance.

  6. Pingback: Modal verbs – the basics – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

  7. Gloria

    Dear Kate,
    thank you for this article.
    Could you also say something about expressing obligation with ‘should’?
    Many thanks,

  8. Carlos Fernando Perales

    It has been very helpful for me. I have clarified some doubts that I had. Thanks a lot for the information!

    Best greetings.

    Carlos Perales.

  9. Zosia

    Great post as usual but I am just wondering about MUST in sentences like this ones; ” You must have been a beautiful baby” or ” You must have got me wrong” or Roxette song ” It must have been love” as you said MUST we could use only in the present tense but this sounds like the past.
    Thank you

  10. I gave the link to this page to someone who is having a really tough time understanding the difference between ‘have to’ and ‘must’. Hopefully she takes notes and reviews them. Thank you for such a simple explanation.

  11. Berenice Erreguin

    Thanks for your description about ‘have to’ and ‘must’. I´m starting to learn English and it was of very help.

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