Author Topic: Does “have to” mean the same as the modal auxiliary “must”?  (Read 18101 times)

Joe Carillo

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Some forms of English usage mean different things but are often used interchangeably, others are contentious and baffling to choose from, and still others require social finesse to express properly.

Forum member Pipes recently asked me three interesting questions that involve such confusing usage choices.

Question #1: “What is the difference between ‘have to’ and ‘must’? Do they mean the same thing when they refer to obligation? Is it true, as other grammarians say, that we can use them interchangeably?” 

                                IMAGE CREDIT: MARK KULEK, WWW.YOUTUBE.COM

My answer: “Have to” and “must” both express a desire or resolve to do something but they mean it in different ways. As such, they shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

Generally, “have to” expresses an impersonal obligation demanded or imposed by another person or entity; the subject of “have to” is obliged to do the action of the verb that follows it, as in “I have to clock in to work at 8:30 a.m. every day.” “Motorists in Britain have to drive on the left lane.”

In contrast, “must” expresses a subjective obligation or resolve on the part of the speaker or subject. It’s a modal auxiliary verb for indicating that the action of the verb that follows it is essential or necessary, as in “I must put an end to this lopsided arrangement.” “She must quit the job or get fired!”

                                           IMAGE CREDIT: WWW.PINTEREST.COM

Question #2: “Is it correct to use the subject pronoun ‘she’ in the ‘if’-clause, as in ‘If I were she, I would have joined the camping?’”

My answer: In subjunctive sentences like “If I were her/she, I would have joined the camping,” it remains contentious whether to use the object pronoun “her” or the subject pronoun “she.” For formal writing, it’s advisable to use “she” in such sentences: “If I were she, I would have joined the camping?”

English teachers and hidebound bureaucrats definitely won’t quibble with your choice. Many people find such sentences stiff and unnatural-sounding, though, so in informal writing or speech, they often use “her” instead: “If I were her, I would have joined the camping.” Depending on the communication situation, use your best judgment when making the choice.

Question #3: “What exactly is the correct response to the question: ‘How do you do?’ I was told it should be ‘How do you do, too?’ Is that correct?”

My answer: As far as I know, the prevailing appropriate positive polite response to “How do you do?” is “I’m fine, thank you! And you?” or “I’m good, thank you! And you?” A more ebullient reply would be “I’m doing great, thank you! And you?” To reply “How do you do, too?” would be too nonchalant or excruciatingly stiff—perhaps even irritating. I think a middle-ground acceptable response would be “I’m fine, thank you. And how about you?”


And here’s another interesting grammar question, this time from Forum member English Maiden:

“I’m not quite sure which kind of articles to use in the following sentences:

“‘My mother is (a/the) perfect mother.’
“‘This is (a/the)) perfect time to go shopping.’
“‘These are (no article/the) perfect books to read in my free time.’
“‘We need to come up with (a/the) perfect backup plan.’

“Please explain to me which kind of articles to use and why.”

                                                  IMAGE CREDIT: WWW.OBSESSEDBYPORTIA.COM
Which is right? “My mother is (a/the) perfect mother.”

All of the four “perfect”-using sentences above should use the article “the.” They are socially acceptable idiomatic overstatements that would lose their cogency if the article “a” or no article is used instead. So even if nothing’s perfect and you know in your heart that they aren’t exactly truthful, don’t hesitate to phrase those statements as follows:

“My mother is the perfect mother.”
“This is the perfect time to go shopping.”
“These are the perfect books to read in my free time.”
“We need to come up with the perfect backup plan.”

This essay, 768th in the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the December 3, 2011 issue of The Manila Times, © 2011 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: June 09, 2022, 05:10:44 PM by Joe Carillo »