Expressing existence and obligation with "haber"

Learn about how "haber" works as a standalone verb to express existence and obligation in expressions like "hay", "haber que" and more with our handy guide!

Dec 20, 2021
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Haber: the verb

Most students have no problem using hay in Spanish, although many do not know that the infinitive verb this conjugation comes from is haber, therefore they become confused when they need to use it in other tenses or phrases such as ‘debería haber habido’.

To really understand haber, we need to remember that it has two main purposes in the Spanish language: the first is to express the existence of something -hay un lapicero en la mesa (there’s a pen on the table), and the second is to create compound tenses in combination with participles- ellos no han hecho la tarea (they haven’t done their homework).

In this post, we will focus on haber for expressing existence. When haber serves this purpose, it works as an impersonal verb, which means that it only has one single conjugation for each tense, that of the third person singular. Let’s look at each of the different conjugations with examples:

Present simple: hay

  • Hay mucha gente en la calle y no hay mucho espacio para caminar.
    There are lots of people on the street and there isn’t much room to walk.

Preterite: hubo/ había

  • Ayer hubo un accidente terrible cerca del parque.
    There was a terrible accident near the park yesterday.
  • Había mucha niebla y no podíamos ver casi el camino, y como había tan poca luz tuvimos que conducir muy lentamente.
    There was a lot of fog and we could hardly see the road, and as there was so little light we had to drive very slowly.

Present perfect: ha habido

  • Creo que no ha habido mucho qué hacer en estos días.
    I think there’s not been much to do these days.

Future: habrá

  • La próxima semana no habrá clases porque el profesor está enfermo.
    Next week there will be no classes because the teacher is sick.

Conditional: habría

  • Ellos me dijeron que habría mucha comida mexicana.
    They told me there would be a lot of Mexican food.

Present subjunctive: haya

  • Espero que haya gente baile salsa.
    I hope there are people that dance salsa.

Imperfect subjunctive: hubiera

  • Esperaba que hubiera más gente que bailara salsa.
    I was hoping there’d be more people who danced salsa.

Combined with periphrasis:

  • Va a haber.
    There’s going to be.
  • Podría haber.
    There could be.
  • Tiene que haber.
    There has to be/ there needs to be.
  • Podría haber habido.
    There could have been.
  • Había habido.
    There had been.

Four important things you need to know about the usage of "haber"

1.We are sorry for repeating ourselves here, but we cannot emphasize enough that when haber indicates existence, it is always used in the third person singular, never in the plural. You may hear mistakes in many native speakers like: hubieron tres fallecidos en el accidente, but this is wrong because there is no hubieron, just hubo; so, please, try not to replicate these mistakes.

  • Ayer en el concierto había muchas personas.
    There were lots of people at the concert yesterday.

2.When haber is part of a verbal periphrasis, the auxiliary verb must be conjugated in the third person singular.

  • Debe haber muchas personas en esa fiesta.
    There must be lots of people at the party.
  • Sara dice que va a haber muchas reuniones esta semana.
    Sara says there’s going to be a lot of meetings this week.
  • No estoy segura, pero puede haber muchos carros hoy.
    I’m not sure, but there may be a lot of cars today.

3.When the sentence is negative, the no must appear BEFORE haber and not after it. Negations in Spanish are always before conjugated verbs.

  • Hay no problema.
    No hay problema.

There are many collocations in English using no + noun - no problem, no need, no doubt, no point, no evidence, no way - whose translation in Spanish involves the verb haber because, in this language, it’s incorrect to use no directly with nouns. Therefore, these English collocations translate like this: no hay problema, no hay necesidad, no hay duda, no hay punto, no hay evidencia, no hay forma.

4.Haber is used with indefinite articles, indefinite pronouns and adjectives; and numbers (when the noun is countable), in other words, anything non-specific works great with this verb. On the other hand, it’s never used with definite articles - hay la camisa, nor with possessive adjectives - hay su camisa. In case you need definite articles or possessives, you should use estar.

  • Hay un carro estacionado en la entrada de la casa.
    There’s a car parked in the driveway.
  • Hay alguien que está esperando en la recepción.
    There’s someone waiting in the lobby.
  • Hay algo que todavía no entiendo.
    There’s something I still don’t understand.
  • No hay mucha comida en la nevera.
    There’s not much food in the fridge.

Also, remember you need to use no with negative indefinite pronouns such as nadie, nada, ninguno.

  • No hay nadie en la casa.
    There’s no one at home.
  • No hay nada más qué hacer.
    There’s nothing else to do.

When there’s a plural or uncountable noun after haber, there’s no need for indefinite articles- un(os), una(s).

  • No hay manzanas en el supermercado.
    There are no apples at the supermarket.
  • En este hotel no hay agua potable.
    There is no drinking water at this hotel.

Now, it’s time to study how this verb works with other verbs.

Hay que + infinitivo

Haber que + infinitivo is an impersonal verbal construction that expresses that it is important or necessary to perform a certain action. It expresses general obligation. Let’s contrast it with tener que + infinitivo, another common way of expressing obligation.

  • María tiene que tomar un taxi para ir a la embajada.
    Maria needs to take a cab to go to the embassy.
    It is Maria’s and only Maria’s responsibility to take the cab if she wants to get to the embassy.
  • Hay que tomar un taxi para ir a la embajada.
    One needs to take a cab to go to the embassy.
    This is what anyone needs to do to get to the embassy. It is a general need or obligation.

Important note: if you decide to express obligation or necessity with haber que + infinitive, and the verb in infinitive is pronominal (verbs that take reflexive pronouns), then you must use the reflexive pronoun of the third person: se.

  • Para esa fiesta hay que vestirse bien elegante.
    You’ve got to dress up for that party.

Let’s contrast it with tener que + infinitivo.

  • Para esa fiesta tienes que vestirte elegante.
    You have to dress up for that party.

Now let’s take a look at other ways to express obligation and necessity with haber.

Haber de + infinitivo

This is the personal way of expressing obligation, necessity or convenience with the verb haber. In other words, it is the personal form of the previous construction, haber que + inf.

  • Ellos habrán de entender que hacer la tarea es muy importante para mejorar.
    They will have to understand that doing the homework is very important for improvement.
  • Yo he de decirle la verdad a mi mamá.
    I have to tell my mom the truth.

Although the use of this construction is correct with different verb conjugations, naturally when we speak we use it with the verb in present and future. This form of expressing obligation is perfectly replaceable with tener que, which is also much more common.

Haber lugar a/ para

This adverbial expression indicates that the necessary conditions are in place for a specific action.

  • Aquí no hay lugar para tus berrinches, te puedes ir para otro lado.
    There’s no place for your tantrums here, you can turn around and leave.
  • Definitivamente, no hay lugar para darse por vencido.
    There’s definitely no room for giving up.

Although these sentences can be expressed in the affirmative, we more naturally do so in the negative.

No hay más que + infinitivo

With this expression, we indicate the action of the infinitive verb is completed. There’s nothing else to do.

  • No hay más que decir.
    There’s nothing else to say. / That’s all I have to say.
  • No había más que ver.
    There was nothing else to see.

Lo habido y por haber

This expression means “everything imaginable”.

  • Hicimos de todo, lo habido y por haber.
    We did everything we could. You name it.

This is it about haber as a verb, now you can go to our exercise section to practice what you just learned.

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