Is working out the difference between “haber” and “tener“ giving you a headache?
Then don’t feel discouraged! Mastering this portion of Spanish grammar is especially mind-boggling for these two reasons:
- In English, we use the same word (have) for “haber” and “tener” even though the verbs have different meanings
- In some cases (although not all of them) we can use both verbs to refer to “duties”
Stick with me while we take a look at some examples:
- I have to wash the dishes.
Tengo que lavar los platos.
- The dishes have to be washed.
Hay que lavar los platos, or Los platos tienen que ser lavados.
In these examples, both sentences refer to a “duty”, or something that someone “has to do”. However, when we use the verb “haber” in an impersonal way, the subject is indeterminate: “someone has to wash the dishes.”
There is a lot to bear in mind when choosing between “haber” and “tener”. Fortunately, though, you’re not in it on your own. In this article, you will find a quick, simple and complete guide that will give you a rich overview of the comparative use of these two verbs.
But that’s not all. To consolidate everything you know about the verbs, I have incorporated some practical exercises at the end of this article.
Ready to get started? Then let’s jump right to it!
In this article we will cover:
- How to use the verb “tener“
- When to use the expression “tener que“
- How to use the verb “haber”
- The auxiliary form of the verb “haber“
- The impersonal form of the verb “haber“
- When to use the expression “hay que“
- Practice time
- Final words
How to use the verb “tener”
In a nutshell, “tener” can be translated as “to have” and can express a relationship of possession, ownership, belonging, or inclusion which may or may not be physical.
Ok, so what does all that mean? Here are some examples that will explain.
- I have 3 dollars in my pocket.
Tengo 3 dólares en mi bolsillo.
- I have an idea.
Tengo una idea.
Here are the main ways of conjugating “tener”:
- Infinitive: to have
- Gerund: having
- Past Participle: had
The verb “tener” in Spanish is irregular. (Whoopie! Another irregular verb!)
The verb also can be reflexive. This means that it can be conjugated in such a way that the result of the action carried out by the subject falls on the subject himself. (Not feeling too confident with reflexive verbs and reflexive pronouns? Then make sure you check out some of our articles on these topics.)
As you know, an irregular verb does not follow the standard conjugation rules in Spanish, so here are the conjugations of “tener” in the indicative mood (we’ll start with the simple present tense). Once you have mastered these, we can go into some of the more complicated examples and how to use them correctly:
|Subject pronouns||Simple present||Imperfect tense||Simple past||Simple future||Conditional|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Tiene||Tenía||Tuvo||Tendrá||Tendría|
|Ustedes / Ellos||Tienen||Tenían||Tuvieron||Tendrán||Tendrían|
- I have three sisters.
Tengo tres hermanas.
- We have two cars.
Tenemos dos carros.
- Pedro has a new bicycle.
Pedro tiene una bicicleta nueva.
- Do you have money?
The first distinction we have to make when we study “haber” vs “tener”, is the use of “tener” as a possessive verb.
However, besides “assets” or “properties”, so to speak, we also use this verb to express our age, most of our moods, some of our needs, and sickness that may affect us at a certain time.
Ok, that’s a lot to swallow. So, here are some examples.
- Ana is 30 years old.
Ana tiene 30 años.
- I’m thirsty.
- Are you afraid?
- Diego is hungry.
Diego tiene hambre.
- Do you have the flu?
- I have a headache.
Tengo dolor de cabeza.
Another common use of “tener” is when we say the expression “I feel like having …“. We can translate this into Spanish using the following structure:
“Tener” (conjugated as appropriate) + “ganas” (desire) + “de” (of) + verb in the infinitive (the base of the verb, or the verb without conjugation) + complement.
- I feel like having pizza.
Tengo ganas de comer una pizza.
- Do you feel like having a beer?
¿Tienes ganas de beber una cerveza?
Ok, so that’s the positive sentences sorted. But what if you want to create a sentence in the negative? This part is easy! We just need to add the word no (or another negative word, depending on the context) before the conjugation of “tener“. Here’s how to do it.
- You never have money.
Nunca tienes dinero.
- He is not afraid.
Él no tiene miedo.
- Ana does not have the flu anymore.
Ana ya no tiene gripe.
- I have no idea.
No tengo idea / No tengo ni idea.
When to use the expression “tener que”
When we want to express the verb “to have to“, as an obligation, a duty, or just to refer to something that needs to be done or “has to” be done; we can use the verb “tener” plus the word “que” plus an infinitive verb (the base of the verb, or the verb without conjugation).
- Juan has to work tomorrow.
Juan tiene que trabajar mañana.
- We have to study for the Spanish exam.
Tenemos que estudiar para el examen de Español.
- You have to call your mom.
Tienes que llamar a tu mamá.
- I have to tell the truth.
Tengo que decir la verdad.
This format is a little less puzzling as it is very similar to the structure that we use to put together these kinds of sentences in English. But, we still need to err on the side of caution. It is important to remember that we do not use “tener” as an auxiliary verb to make up other kinds of verb tenses.
For instance, if we wanted to translate the following sentence: “They have already eaten”, the “have” that functions as an auxiliary verb does not refer to the verb “tener”, but to the verb “haber” that we will study next.
How to use the verb “haber”
Now here’s where you’ll find out everything you need to know about the verb “haber”.
Did you know that the verb “haber” is the most used auxiliary verb in Spanish? So it’s super important that we make “haber” one of our best buddies that will help us communicate effectively in Spanish.
We use “haber” as an auxiliary verb generally to speak of complete actions in the past and thus form compound verb tenses, such as the present perfect indicative.
- I have seen all the Harry Potter movies.
He visto todas las películas de Harry Potter.
- They have taken Spanish classes.
Ellos han tomado clases de Español.
We can use the verb “haber” as an auxiliary to create much more complex sentences.
Are you ready for that challenge? Then let’s get to it.
Now, when we use the verb “haber” as an auxiliary verb we always need another verb, which generally must be conjugated in the past participle, whose regular forms in Spanish usually end in “ado” and “ido” (remember that irregular verb endings will be different). This is why the auxiliary use of “haber” can seem like a bit of a minefield.
Here are the conjugations of “haber” used as an auxiliary verb in the simple present tense:
|Él / Ella / Usted||Ha|
|Ellos / Ustedes||Han|
- Have you understood?
- I have made a couple of calls.
He hecho un par de llamadas.
- They have bought a new car.
Ellos han comprado un auto nuevo.
- I have thought about my future.
He pensado en mi futuro.
- Sara has arrived at her house.
Sara ha llegado a su casa.
For the negative form, we simply add the word no (or another negative word, depending on the context) before the conjugation of the verb “haber”.
- I have not understood.
No he entendido.
- I haven’t made the calls.
No he hecho las llamadas.
- They have not bought a new car yet.
Todavía no han comprado un auto nuevo.
- The truth is that I have not thought about my future.
La verdad es que no he pensado en mi futuro.
- Sara has not arrived at her house.
Sara no ha llegado a su casa.
This verb, in its auxiliary form, is also used in the subjunctive tense. But diving into the subjunctive tense right now may make us sink rather than swim. The subjunctive, as you may already know, really deserves a dedicated article and full explanation. So, we’ll let that one slide for the time being. (But do make sure you get to it at some point!)
Moving away from the dreaded subjunctive, it’s useful to know that as an auxiliary verb, the verb “haber” can take on different forms. Here are its conjugations in the indicative mood:
|Subject pronoun||Simple present||Imperfect tense||Simple past||Simple future||Conditional|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Ha||Había||Hubo||Habrá||Habría|
|Ustedes / Ellos||Han||Habían||Hubieron||Habrán||Habrían|
This may already look like a lot. But there are even more conjugations that I could add to this table, such as the subjunctive mood (wishes, or hypothetical actions) or in the imperative mood (orders, commands, and advice). But there is no need for us to overcomplicate things right now.
But if you are itching to find out how you can use the verb “haber” in the present perfect tense, the subjunctive mood, or the imperative mood you can check out some of our articles on these tenses.
Impersonal form of the verb “haber”
The verb “haber” is slightly more complicated than most Spanish verbs. First of all, this is because you have to decide whether you need to use “haber” or “tener”. If you need “haber” you then have to check whether you should use the verb in its auxiliary form (which is a whole other kettle of fish). Then to add to it, there is an impersonal form of the verb too.
So what’s this impersonal form all about? We must use the impersonal form of “haber” to refer to the existence of something without necessarily describing an owner. In English, this happens when we use the words: “there is” or “there are”.
- There are a lot of people here.
Aquí hay mucha gente.
- There is food in the oven.
En el horno hay comida.
- There is a lot of noise, I can’t hear you.
Hay mucho ruido, no puedo escucharte.
- There are eight students in the Spanish class.
Hay ocho estudiantes en la clase de Español.
- There is no time for that.
No hay tiempo para eso.
- There are no tomatoes in the store.
No hay tomates en la tienda.
It is important to note that this impersonal form can be conjugated in different verb tenses. Now I know what you’re thinking, oh great more to learn! But there is good news! The impersonal form of the verb “haber” is always used in the singular (regardless of whether the noun is plural or singular).
Ok, so let’s take a look at some of those other tenses. Here are the conjugations of “haber” in its impersonal form for the indicative mood:
|Simple present||Imperfect tense||Simple past||Simple future||Conditional|
If you’re pulling out all the stops, we could also mention the impersonal conjugations of the subjunctive mood (haya, hubiera). But remember, this mood has its own article. It also has compound times, that is when we find the impersonal form and the auxiliary form in the same sentence, or “haber” and “tener” in the same sentence. For instance:
- There are students in my class who have not passed the exam.
Hay estudiantes en mi clase que no han aprobado el examen.
- I haven’t had much time this week.
No he tenido mucho tiempo esta semana.
There are also compound tenses like the present perfect in the future tense, the conditional form, and the subjunctive mood. The possibilities are endless! But there’s no need to wrack your brains about these quite yet. Let’s focus on consolidating what we already know.
When to use the expression “hay que”
To cut a long story short, the expression “hay que” means the same as the expression “tener que“. What makes things even easier is that their structures are also the same:
The verb “haber” (conjugated according to the verb tense that corresponds to the context) plus the word “que”, plus an infinitive verb.
The only difference between them is that when we use the impersonal form of “haber”, the sentence is impersonal (as its name says), so we don’t have a subject pronoun. In other words, the subject of the sentence is indeterminate. It is as if we said: someone has to do something (in general), but we never specify who.
For example, if we were to ask someone: “How do we get to the airport?”, they could respond like this: “Tienen que tomar la Ruta 95” (You have to take Route 95); but they could also respond to us in an impersonal way: “Hay que tomar la Ruta 95” (One has to take Route 95).
Unfortunately, in English, besides “there is” or “there are” we do not have an impersonal expression like “hay que” in Spanish that means “to have to”. This can make it tricky for us to wrap our heads around this bit of grammar. But let’s check out some examples to get a better feel for it:
- Hay que lavar los platos.
The dishes have to be washed.
- Hay que comprar huevos.
Eggs have to be bought.
- Hay que aprender de los errores.
We have to learn from mistakes.
Written exercises can help you pass Spanish tests, but they won’t help you learn to actually speak Spanish.
To get truly conversational in Spanish, you need lots of one-on-one practice with great Spanish teachers.
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Fill in the blanks using “tener” and “tener que”:
- José is 25 years old
José ________ 25 años
- We have to talk
- I have to learn Spanish before traveling to Peru
_________ aprender Español antes de viajar a Perú
- We have many friends in Europe
Nosotros _________ muchos amigos en Europa
- I feel like having Chinese food
__________ ganas de comida china
- Are you hungry?
- Laura and Maria have two cats
Laura y María _______ dos gatos
- My girlfriend has to work this weekend
Mi novia _________ trabajar este fin de semana.
Translate the following sentences:
- The teacher has not corrected the homework yet.
- I have to learn to drive.
- They have been in a relationship for 12 years.
- There are two dogs in the garden.
- You guys have to see that movie.
- There is some milk on the table.
- There is a debt that I have to pay.
- I’m cold.
- Laura and Diana have to clean the car.
Translate the following sentences, using the impersonal version of “haber”:
- In the jungle there are many animals.
- You have to clean the house before the party.
- There’s nothing more to say.
- We have to work tomorrow.
- There is nothing to celebrate.
Note: The answers are at the end of the article.
When you’re just getting started, it’s a job and a half to work out when to use “haber” and when to use “tener”. But with this guide and regular practice you will quickly get a hang of what goes where.
Once you feel comfortable with them, you will be ready to face the use of both verbs in the subjunctive mood or the imperative mood. But remember, it takes time to get these verb structures firmly under our belts. So, go back over this article as much as you need to to make sure that you master these verbs!
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Here are the answers to the exercises from “Fill in the blanks”
1. José tiene 25 años.
2. Tenemos que hablar.
3. Tengo que aprender Español antes de viajar a Perú.
4. Tengo ganas de comida china.
5. Nosotros tenemos muchos amigos en Europa.
6. ¿Tienes hambre?
7. Laura y María tienen dos gatos.
8. Mi novia tiene que trabajar este fin de semana.
Here are the answers from the translation:
1. La profesora no ha corregido la tarea todavía.
2. Tengo que aprender a conducir / manejar.
3. Ellos han estado en una relación por 12 años.
4. Hay dos perros en el jardín.
5. Tienen que ver esa película.
6. Hay un poco de leche sobre la mesa.
7. Hay una deuda que tengo que pagar.
8. Tengo frío.
9. Laura y Diana tienen que limpiar el carro.
Here are the answers from the translation using the impersonal version of “haber”
1. En la selva hay muchos animales.
2. Hay que limpiar la casa antes de la fiesta.
3. No hay nada más qué decir.
4. Hay que trabajar mañana.
5. No hay nada qué celebrar.
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