Getting to Know the Spanish Modal Auxiliary Verbs | My Daily Spanish
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Getting to Know the Spanish Modal Auxiliary Verbs

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Spanish modal auxiliary verbs

Ready to find out what spanish modal auxiliary verbs are, and how to use them? Don’t worry, they’re not as scary as they sound! Read on to know about it.

What is a Spanish modal auxiliary verb?

An auxiliary verb, sometimes called a ‘helping verb,’ is a verb that usually works with another verb (the main verb) to form a verb phrase—for example, by putting it in front of an infinitive (volver a intentar) or a gerund (estar cocinando).

A modal verb is a specific type of auxiliary verb. Modal verbs are used to express ‘modality,’ i.e. things like obligation, ability, possibility, and so on. In English, this would include words like ‘must,’ ‘shall,’ ‘would,’ ‘can,’ etc.

Some of the most important ones in Spanish are:

  • Querer
  • Poder
  • Saber
  • Deber
  • Tener que
  • Soler
  • Haber

We’re going to look at them one by one, and conjugate them all in the present tense. Don’t forget, they can be used in other tenses, too!

Querer

Querer means ‘to want.’ One of the main ways to use it is to put it before an infinitive. This usage makes it a modal verb.

Here’s how to conjugate it in the present tense.

(Yo) quiero(Nosotr@s) queremos
(Tú) quieres(Vosotr@s) queréis
(Él/ella/usted) quiere(Ellos/ellas/ustedes) quieren

If you use querer in the imperfect subjunctive or the conditional (e.g. quisiera, querría), it can be a great way of politely asking for something, and isn’t as strong as ‘I WANT.’

Now let’s see how it’s used in context. Remember, stick it before an infinitive.

Hoy quiero nadar en el mar.Today I want to swim in the sea.
¿Quieres salir conmigo?Do you want to go out with me?
¿Quiere ir a la conferencia?Do you (formal) want to go to the conference?
Queremos dar las gracias a Diego.We want to thank Diego.
Sé que queréis ir a la fiesta pero he dicho que no.I know you want to go to the party but I’ve said no.
Quieren comprar un nuevo coche.They want to buy a new car.
Quisiera ver al jefe, por favor.I’d like to see the boss, please.
Querríamos jugar aquí si no le molesta, Señor Cifuentes.We would like to play here if it doesn’t bother you, Mr. Cifuentes.

Poder

Arguably the most common of the Spanish modal verbs, poder doesn’t have a direct one-word English equivalent, but it means ‘to be able to.’

Here it is in the present tense.

(Yo) puedo(Nosotr@s) podemos
(Tú) puedes(Vosotr@s) podéis
(Él/ella/usted) puede(Ellos/ellas/ustedes) pueden

This verb is also often used in the conditional tense (e.g. podría), and sometimes the imperfect tense (e.g. podía) to politely ask permission.

¿Puedo fumar?
Can I smoke?
Puedes comer lo que te dé la gana.
You can eat whatever you feel like.
No te preocupes. Julie puede ayudarte.
Don’t worry. Julie can help you.
¡No podemos permitirnos algo tan caro!
We can’t afford something so expensive!
Sé que podéis triunfar.
I know that you guys can triumph.
A ver si pueden oírnos.
Let’s see if they can hear us.
¿Podría unirme a su grupo?Could I join your group?
¿Podía usted cerrar la puerta?
Could you (formal) close the door?

Saber

Saber means ‘to know.’ It can refer to knowing a skill, or knowing information.

Here it is in the present tense.

(Yo) sé(Nosotr@s) sabemos
(Tú) sabes(Vosotr@s) sabéis
(Él/ella/usted) sabe(Ellos/ellas/ustedes) saben

It’s commonly used in the imperfect tense (¿sabías que...?) to mean ‘did you know?’

Sé jugar al tenis.I know how to play tennis.
¿Sabes jugar al ajedrez?Can you play chess?
Lucas sabe cocinar pero no lo hace.Lucas can cook but he doesn’t do it.
Sabemos pedir ayuda cuando la necesitemos.We know how to ask for help when we need it.
¿Sabéis mi secreto?Do you know my secret?
Los adolescentes no saben respetar a la gente mayor.Teenagers don’t know how to respect older people.
¿Sabías que el tomate no es una verdura, sino una fruta?Did you know that tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable?

Bear in mind that the verb saber actually also means ‘to taste’ (when describing the flavor of something)!

El helado sabe a vainilla. Sabe muy dulce.The ice cream tastes of vanilla. It tastes very sweet.

Difference between poder and saber

Okay, so we know that poder means ‘to be able to.’ Sometimes, as you can see above, saber can also have that meaning! If you think about it, it makes sense. Saber is to know. To know how to do something implies having the ability to do it.

There’s just a slight difference in the type of “ability.”

Poder has a sense of being allowed/available to do something, whereas saber is more about having the skills needed to do something. For example:
¿Puedes planchar mi camisa hoy?Can you (are you available and willing to) iron my shirt today?
¿Sabes planchar camisas?Can you (do you know how to) iron shirts?
No puedo cocinar hoy. Mi madre dijo que no.I can’t (am not allowed to) cook today. My mother said no.
Sé cocinar. Mi padre me enseñó.I can (know how to) cook. My father taught me.
Joaquín sabe bailar pero este mes no puede porque se ha roto el tobillo.Joaquín can (knows how to) dance but this month he can’t (is unable to) because he’s broken his ankle.

Deber

Deber + infinitive means that something ‘must’ be done.

Here it is conjugated in the present tense.

(Yo) debo(Nosotr@s) debemos
(Tú) debes(Vosotr@s) debéis
(Él/ella/usted) debe(Ellos/ellas/ustedes) deben

It’s also used a lot in the conditional tense (e.g. debería) to weaken the level of obligation. With the conditional, it’s a case of ‘should’ or ‘ought to,’ rather than ‘must.’

Another thing you can do is it to use the phrase deber de. Having the de slightly changes the meaning. Deber de is used to express that something is probable, or that you suppose is true. Note that in Mexican Spanish, this is replaced with haber de.

Example sentences:

Debo terminar este ensayo.

Debo terminar este ensayo.I must finish this essay.
¡Debes devolver lo que robaste!You’ve got to return what you stole!
Paula debe esforzarse más en clase para no suspender.Paula must put in more effort in class to avoid failing.
Estamos disfrutando de las vacaciones pero debemos volver a casa mañana.We’re enjoying the vacation but we must return home tomorrow.
Debéis decirme la verdad.You must tell me the truth.
Los profesores deben intervenir.The teachers must (are obliged to) intervene.
Debería ir a la fiesta pero no me da la gana.I should go to the party but I can’t be bothered.
Deberíamos limpiar la cocina antes de que vuelvan Mamá y Papá.We ought to clean the kitchen before Mommy and Daddy get back.
Deben de ser las 11 ya.It must be 11 o’clock by now.
Carlos debió de irse con Mateo.Carlos must have left with Mateo.

Remember that deber also means ‘to owe.’

Tito, me debes 1.000 dólares.Tito, you owe me 1,000 dollars.

Tener que

The verb tener and the word que form a nice little phrase that means ‘to have to.’ It has a similar meaning to deber, but carries an even stronger sense of obligation!

Here’s the present tense conjugation of the verb tener.
(Yo) tengo(Nosotr@s) tenemos
(Tú) tienes(Vosotr@s) tenéis
(Él/ella/usted) tiene(Ellos/ellas/ustedes) tienen
En serio, tengo que irme ya.Seriously, I have to go now.
¿Pero qué haces? ¡Tienes que estar loca!*What are you doing? You must be crazy!
Usted tiene que sentarse aquí con el jefe.You (formal) have to sit here with the boss.
Tenemos que arreglarnos para la fiesta.We have to get ready for the party.
Chicos, tenéis que dejar de molestarme.Guys, you really have to stop annoying me.
Todos los empleados tienen que firmar este contrato.All the employees must sign this contract.
¿Por qué tuviste que meterte en mis problemas?Why did you have to go and get involved in my problems?

*This is an example of a ‘supposition.’ All that means is that we’re not saying ‘you must be crazy; I’m commanding you to be crazy.’ Instead, we’re saying ‘you must be crazy; I suppose that’s the only way to explain your actions.’

Soler

Soler + infinitive means to usually/normally do something. This construction is a lovely little alternative to normalmente.

Here it is, conjugated in the present tense:

(Yo) suelo

(Nosotr@s) solemos

(Tú) sueles

(Vosotr@s) soléis

(Él/ella/usted) suele

(Ellos/ellas/ustedes) suelen

Time for examples!

Suelo ir al gimnasio los jueves. (Normalmente, voy al gimnasio los jueves.)I usually/normally go to the gym on Thursdays.
(Normally, I go to the gym on Thursdays.)
Sueles traerme algo para comer.You usually bring me something to eat.
Ana suele llorar al ver películas tristes.Ana usually cries when watching sad movies.
Tú y yo solemos discutir.You and I always (usually) argue.
Soléis venir a mis fiestas. ¿Por qué esta vez no?You guys usually come to my parties. Why not this time?
Los perros suelen ser muy amables.Dogs are usually very friendly.

Haber

Haber has a few shades of meaning, depending on how you use it. It’s often used as the auxiliary verb in compound tenses, in which case it means ‘to have.’ For example, he comprado algo.

Here’s the present tense conjugation table.

(Yo) he

(Nosotr@s) hemos

(Tú) has

(Vosotr@s) habéis

(Él/ella/usted) ha*

(Ellos/ellas/ustedes) han

*There’s another third person singular form, which is hay. It means ‘there is’/’there are.’

One way of expressing modality with the verb haber is to add de. It can express obligation (but isn’t common in modern speech), or ‘should’ in certain situations.

He de hacer los ejercicios.

I have to do the exercises.

Clara hubo de repetir el examen.

Clara had to re-sit the exam.

¿Por qué Uriol habría/había de enfadarse si yo no hice nada mal?

Why should Uriol (why did Uriol have to) get angry when I didn’t do anything wrong?

Another way of using haber to express obligation is to add que after it. Haber que is only used in the third person singular form, and it talks about something that is necessary, without naming any specific person.

Hay que respetar al medio ambiente.

One has to respect the environment.

Hay que estudiar para aprobar este examen.

You have to (one has to) study in order to pass this exam.

No había que hacer nada. Enter your text here...

There was no need to do anything.

Hubo que llamar a la policía.

It was necessary to call the police.

Quiz time!

For each example below, pick the correct modal verb or verb phrase.

 1. ___ reír. (You have to laugh.)

       a. Tengo que

       b. Hay que

       c. Sueles

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 2. ___ verte. (I want to see you.)

       a. Quiero 

       b. Necesito 

       c.  

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 3. ___ dejar de acosarme. (You absolutely have to stop stalking me.)

       a. Quieres

       b. Sueles

       c. Tienes que

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 4. Elías no ___ mentir. (Elías doesn’t know how to lie.)

       a. sabe

       b.  

       c. puede 

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 5. Esta clase ___ ser difícil para ti. (This class must be difficult for you.)

       a. suele

       b. hay 

       C. debe de 

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 6. Oye, la puerta está cerrada. ¿___ pasar? (Listen, the door’s shut. Can I come in?

       a. 

       b. puedo 

       c. debo 

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 7. Mi familia y yo ___ comer comida china. (My family and I usually eat Chinese food.)

       a. solemos 

       a. queremos 

       a. deberíamos 

Click to reveal the correct answer:

Conclusion

I must congratulate you on getting through this lesson. It should help develop the sophistication of your Spanish. Lots of practice usually helps.

About the Author Annabel Beilby

Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.

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