the difference between words: have to and need to

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The entry for today is a very subtle one: it’s the difference between “have to” and “need to”. There is a slight difference in nuance between them. We say “have to” when we want to talk about obligations – things we have no choice about doing. However, we say “need to” when we want to talk about things that are necessary to do in order to achieve a certain goal. For example:

I have to be at work by 9:00 a.m. every morning.

I have to help my friend move tomorrow, so I can’t have lunch with you.

You have to turn off the lights if you’re the last person to leave the office.

I want to go to Vietnam for my vacation, so I need to get a visa.

If you want to get a promotion, you need to work very hard.

If your daughter wants to be a model, she needs to lose some weight.

In the case of the second example, the person uses “have to”, even though they have a choice about helping the friend move. In these cases, when we agree to do something, we feel an obligation to do it, and so we use “have to” in these cases.

In the last three examples for “need to”, the person does the thing (get a visa, work very hard, lose some weight) in order to achieve the goal (go to Vietnam, get a promotion, be a model).

Sometimes, “have to” and “need to” can be exchanged freely in a sentence and will have a very similar meaning. For example:

I have to go to the bathroom.

I need to go to the bathroom.

I have to finish this job by Friday.

I need to finish this job by Friday.

I write down things I have to do on sticky notes.

I write down things I need to do on sticky notes.

In these cases, the meaning is very close but has a slightly different nuance. Again, when we use “have to”, we’re emphasizing the fact we have no choice; when we use “need to”, we’re emphasizing the fact that it’s necessary.

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6 Comments »

  1. Chie Said:

    There is also a difference between “have to” and “must”, right?
    The Japanese translation for both words looks the same meaning, but I guess the situation of the usage is different. Am I right? I’m sometimes not sure which one should be used.

    • Hi Chie.

      In English, the word “must” is more formal than “have to”. Also, it’s important to note that there is no past tense form of “must”, so if you want to talk about obligations in the past, you should use “had to”.

      I hope that answers your question.

      Mike

  2. ces Said:

    Hi! Could you please explain as well the difference between “don’t have to” and “need not”?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi there.

      They mean the same thing except that “need not” is very formal. Therefore people usually use “don’t have to”. I would say we usually use “need not” only in formal writing or formal business conversations.

      Thanks for your question.

      Mike

  3. Syed Muhammad Salman Said:

    Dear Sir,

    Could you please help me explain the difference between “Is / Am / Are to” and “Have / has to”?

    I look forward to getting an instant response from you.

    Regards,
    Syed Muhammad Salman

    • Hello there.

      When we say someone is to do something, it means the same thing as “will” do something, but it’s extremely formal. Therefore, it’s very rarely used. When we say someone has to do something, it means that they must do it, and that they have no choice.

      I hope that answers your question.

      Mike


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