Hosting parties, buying gifts, attending holiday events: there are many fun things we have to do during the holidays. This makes December the perfect month to discuss Modals of Obligation. Do you know what they are and how to use them?

Modals of Obligation in English

Some modals are stronger than others. For example, look at these two sentences. Is there a difference between them?

  • I have to go to the store.
  • I should go to the store.

In Sentence 1, the person doesn’t have much of a choice. Is it very important that he or she go to the store. In Sentence 2, the person would like to go to the store . . . but it’s not 100% necessary.

Adding to these sentences will help these modals make more sense.

  • I have to go to the store. We have nothing to eat and I have guests coming for dinner.
  • I should go to the store. I want to make cookies this weekend and I don’t have any milk.

Here, we can see that it is VERY important to go to the store in Sentence 1; in Sentence 2, it’s not incredibly important. The person can go to the store later.

By changing this one little word, the meanings of the sentences change greatly. Modals are incredibly important! Now, let’s look at these modals and what they mean.

Modal of Obligation #1: HAVE TO

This modal is used when a person has a 100% obligation to do something. Here are some other examples:

  • I have to study for my CAE exam. It’s this weekend.
  • I have to wake up early. We are leaving for Las Vegas at 6 am.
  • I have to extend my I-20. My roommate told me it’s very simple to do: the CISL DSO will help.

This modal is expressed negatively with the words DON’T HAVE TO. It means that you are not required to do something. You have zero obligation.

  • You don’t have to drive me to the airport. I bought a plane ticket.
  • I don’t have to wake up early on weekends.
Ice skating at the Hotel Del Coronado
You HAVE to go ice skating in Coronado this winter! It’s so cool to skate next to the beach!

Modal of Obligation #2: NEED TO

The modal NEED TO also expresses a strong necessity to do something, but it’s not as strong as HAVE TO. Here are some examples:

  • I need to finish my homework before I go to the beach. (Important? Yes, of course! But it can probably be done after the beach as well!)
  • My roommate really needs to clean her room! (Important? Yes! But she’s not required to clean her room; we are just expressing a wish.)

In the negative form, we use NEEDN’T. It expresses one’s opinion about something that doesn’t need to be done.

  • You needn’t worry. I will take care of the party details.
  • You needn’t bring anything to the party. We have everything we need.


Modal of Obligation #3: MUST

MUST is a little different than HAVE TO and NEED TO. With MUST, we often use it to express an opinion.

  • In Spain, you must never give a knife as a gift. It’s bad luck.
  • In China, you must not open a gift that’s given to you when the person is still there. You must wait until you are at home to open the gift.

Expressed negatively, we use MUSTN’T.

  • You mustn’t smoke in here. It’s a nonsmoking bar.
  • You mustn’t say bad words around children.
San Francisco Christmas Fireworks Night
You should definitely check out the fireworks on New Year’s Eve in SF! They’re awesome!

Modal of Obligation #4: SHOULD

SHOULD is also used to express an opinion (or give advice).

  • You should call your mom. It’s her birthday tomorrow.
  • You should always wish people “Happy Holidays” during December.

In the negative, we use SHOULDN’T for things we think should be avoided.

  • You shouldn’t have bought me a gift! It’s not necessary!
  • I shouldn’t spend so much money…but I love shopping!

Christmas Shopping in California

What are some things you HAVE TO or NEED TO do for the holidays? One of the things almost everyone has to do is go shopping for gifts. Thankfully, San Diego and San Francisco have plenty of shopping options!

Where should you shop in California? You have a choice of outdoor and indoor malls, shopping centers, and boutique shops in many neighborhoods. You also have outlets for great bargains!

To learn a little about shopping in California, read some of our related articles:

Happy shopping, and Happy Holidays!