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Must vs Have to

Dave Cook

When do we use have to and when do we use must? How about have got to? Or even gotta? Normally when we learn these two words, we are told that they mean the same thing - but is this really true? Let's investigate...

Must not vs Don't have to

It is true that must and have to mean similar things, however when we add a not the differences start to appear. Must not means that an action is prohibited, whereas don't have to means that something is not necessary. For example:

  • You must not eat in class.

  • You don't have to wear a uniform

Spoken and written English

 Instances per million words in the British National Corpus

Instances per million words in the British National Corpus

This graph represents how common have to, must, have got to and gotta are in a collection of examples of British English. We can very clearly see that have to is much more common in spoken English and must is more common in written language.

Collocates

Collocates are words which are commonly used together. If two words have the same meaning, you would expect them to be used alongside similar words. For must and have to this is true in most cases, but the few differences are interesting.

Have to

The following verbs appear with have to but not with must or have got to.

  • face

  • deal

  • rely

Farmers have to deal with all these challenges. 
Well, we all have to face the reality that coherence starts at home.
Students and professionals who have to rely on their pens. 
(Examples found on linguee.com)

These examples are all referring to general situations or obligations from external sources.

Have got to

The following verbs appear with have got to but not with must or have to.

  • watch

  • pick

  • sort


Look grandpa, you've got to watch her!
He has got to pick up the goods and the costs for the empty container return.
We've got to pick up Diana as well.
(Examples found on linguee.com and the British National Corpus)

In these examples, we can see that there is either a direct order or a more specific obligation than in the examples for have to.

Summary

In short, these words have very similar meanings, however there are some general differences to remember to use them more naturally:

must

  • Is much more commonly used in written language

  • Is more formal

have to

  • Is the most commonly used option

  • More frequent in spoken English

  • Can refer to obligation caused by external sources or situations

have got to

  • The have is almost always contracted (I've got to, She's got to etc)

  • Almost never found in written English

  • Refers to a direct order or a specific duty

-Dave Cook