We have to do something!

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How would you say “we have to do something” in Spanish? The literal translation would be “tenemos que hacer algo”, and that’s perfectly correct. There is another commonly used expression which, although it’s very similar, it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing: “hay que hacer algo”. What’s the meaning of “hay que”?

Here’s how it works: it’s a modal impersonal expression. Let’s review some modal verbs that we use both in English and Spanish:

Tengo que llamar a María. I have to call María.
Debo llamar a María. I must call María.
Necesito llamar a María. I need to call María.

In addition, we can rephrase the first sentence (and all the other ones, for that matter) as a passive one (although it’s a little weird, both in English and Spanish):

María tiene que ser llamada por mí. María has to be called by me.

And, in this case, we can also drop the agent, and the result is a somehow impersonal sentence (like someone has to call María, but it can be anybody):

María tiene que ser llamada. María has to be called.

This is the only way to build an impersonal modal sentence is English. In Spanish, however, there’s this “hay que” construction. Here’s how it works:

Tengo que llamar a María. I have to call María.
Hay que llamar a María. *There is to call María. (Literal translation, which doesn’t make sense in English.)


It means, more or less:

Someone has to call María.

María has to be called.

We have to call María (as in “one of us should call her”, in an impersonal way).

So anytime you see or hear “hay que [hacer algo]” it always means that “algo” needs to be done, in an impersonal way, as in like “by somebody”.

We would pretty much never use in Spanish the “agentless” passive construction “María tiene que ser llamada”, as we always have this “Hay que llamar a María” construction available, and we like it much better.

We hope it’s more clear now! We’ll send another article about another common impersonal construction soon! (Have you ever seen a sign that says “se habla español”?)

«Hay que llamar a María.»

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