Modal Verbs in Spanish Grammar

What are modal verbs in Spanish grammar?

There are five key modal verbs (verbos modales) in Spanish: deber, querer, saber, poder and soler. These verbs are always followed by an infinitive. In contrast to auxiliary verbs, modal verbs carry their own meaning; they express the speaker’s attitude towards an action. Modal verbs can indicate obligation, desire, ability, capability, permission, possibility, probability and repetition in relation to the action expressed by the main verb.

Learn about modal verbs in Spanish grammar with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Un ciclista ha tenido un accidente en el centro de la ciudad. La ambulancia quiere llegar al lugar del accidente lo antes posible.

Deben examinarlo y llevarlo al hospital. Allí, los médicos podrán hacer pruebas para comprobar si está en buen estado.

Aun no saben si es grave. Hay mucho tráfico y tienen que poner la sirena para avanzar más rápidamente.

Los ciclistas suelen ir sin casco y hay que llevarlo siempre.

Advertisement

Modal Verbs

In Spanish the five most important modal verbs are: deber, poder, querer, saber and soler. These verbs demonstrate the attitude of the speaker towards the action expressed by the main verb. The main verb that follows a modal is always in the infinitive form.

Example:
Debes llevar siempre el casco cuando montas en bici.You should always wear a helmet when you cycle.

There are other structures that also modify the main verb in a similar way to the modal verbs. These fall under the category of verbal periphrasis. These are: deber de, tener que and haber que.

Example:
Hay que llevar siempre el casco cuando se monta en bici.You have to always wear a helmet when you cycle.

How to use Spanish modal verbs

The meaning of the modal verbs can change depending on whether they are used in the affirmative or negative forms.

Affirmative Form Translation Meaning Example Negative Form Translation Meaning Example
deber have to, must, should moral/legal obligation Debes tomar el antibiótico cada ocho horas.You have to take the antibiotics every eight hours no deber not have to, shouldn’t advantage, recommendation No debo tomar más de dos cafés al día.You shouldn’t have more than two coffees a day.
poder can, be able to

ability,

possibility,

permission

Puedo aguantar un minuto sin respirar bajo el agua.I can go one minute without breathing underwater.

¿Podemos hablar más tarde?Can we talk later?

¿Puedo entrar?Can I come in?

no poder can’t, not able to

inability,

prohibition,

lack of permission

No puedo aguantar un minuto sin respirar bajo el agua.I can't go for one minute without breathing underwater.

No podemos aparcar aquí.We can’t park here.

No puedes usar mi ropa.You can’t use my clothes.

querer want to desire Quiero dar la vuelta al mundo.I want to travel the world. no querer not want to lack of desire No quiero llegar tarde.I don’t want to arrive late.
saber know, can knowledge, ability hablar japonés.I can speak Japanese. no saber not know, can’t lack of knowledge or ability No montar en bici.I can’t ride a bike.
soler normally, be accustomed to habit Suelo despertarme a las 7.I normally get up at 7. no soler not normally unaccustomed No suelo desayunar.I don’t normally have breakfast.
deber de must, should, have to strong probability, deduction No encuentro mis llaves. Deben de estar en casa.I can’t find my keys. They must be at home. no deber de must not, should not, not have to negative deduction Marcos ha ido hoy a la oficina; no debe de saber que es festivo.Marcos has gone to the office today, he must not know it’s a bank holiday.
tener que have to obligation, necessity Tengo que atender esta llamada.I have to answer this call. no tener que not have to lack of obligation or necessity Hoy no tengo que ir a clase.Today I don’t have to go to class.
haber que (impersonal) must, have to obligation, necessity Hay que lavarse los dientes después de cada comida.You have to brush your teeth after every meal. no haber que (impersonal) not have to lack of obligation or necessity Hoy no hay que ir a clase.Today you don’t have to go to class.

Negating the verb deber

The modal verb deber can be translated as the English modal verbs must, have to and should depending on the context. It is important to remember that the meaning of deber changes depending on whether it is used in the affirmative or negative form:

  • In an affirmative sentence, deber indicates that something is obligatory.
  • However, in a negative sentence it is not as strong; it expresses that something is ill-advised or not recommendable.

If we want to express the obligation to not do something, i.e. the idea of something forbidden or not allowed, we use the negative form of the verb poder, which we can translate with the English can’t.

Example:
Debes llegar al trabajo antes de las 10. → obligation
You have to arrive at work before 10.
No debes llegar al trabajo después de las 10. → recommendation
You shouldn’t arrive at work after 10.
No puedes llegar al trabajo después de las 10. → not allowed
You can’t arrive at work after 10.

The difference between haber que and tener que

The phrases haber que + infinitive and tener que + infinitive express obligation or necessity. Their meaning is very similar to deber and the English modal verb have to.

However, although haber que and tener que seem and sound very similar, they are used in different contexts.

haber que + infinitive

  • Is only used in impersonal sentences in the third person singular: hay que
  • Indicates a recommended, obligatory or necessary action for a general public (everyone)
    Example:
    Hay que reciclar para proteger el medio ambiente.You have to recycle to protect the environment.
    Everyone has to recycle

tener que + infinitive

  • Is used in personal sentences in the first, second or third person in singular or plural
  • Indicates an action that is recommended, obligatory or necessary for someone in particular
    Example:
    Tienes que comer más fruta y menos chucherías. = Debes comer más fruta y menos chucherías.You have to eat more fruit and fewer sweets.

Other verbs that are used as modals

In Spanish there are other verbs that modify an infinitive in the same way as the modal verbs. They also express the intention, desire or attitude of the speaker towards the action expressed by the main verb.

The most common examples of such verbs are: intentar, desear, pensar, procurar, and esperar.

Examples:
Intentaré llegar lo más pronto posible.I will try to arrive as soon as possible.
Deseo encontrar un buen trabajo.I want to find a good job.
Pienso visitar Japón el año que viene.I’m planning to visit Japan next year.
Siempre procuro llevar dinero suelto para el autobús.I always try to bring loose change for the bus.
Espero llegar a tiempo a la reunión.I hope I arrive on time for the meeting.