I was taught that deber means “should.” The abomination called Google Translate apparently had the same teachers.

But in reading Spanish laws, I see this word used for things that are required, and the DRAE offers four definitions showing an obligation (and two that have no connection with “should”).

What are good words to use for something advisable but not mandatory?

  • 2
    I guess to be super clear about that I'd say "Es recomendable etc." In informal speech I might also say "Es buena idea etc." Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 4:23
  • 3
    This is related although not an answer to your question: What's the difference between “debe de” y “debe”?
    – Alicia
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 7:37
  • Yes, “deber de” is on of the two I mentioned.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


I've noticed in English that some words that are used informally to mean one thing don't necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence in the realm of precise legal writing. I would imagine the situation is similar for precise legal writing in Spanish as well. So I don't think you should assume that what you see in a legal context will exactly carry over to everyday speech.

Please do continue to take Google Translate with a grain of salt. I suggest you take a look at linguee.com when you want to get a quick panoramic view of equivalences between two languages.

The sphere of words that provide advice, instructions, requirements and reproaches is pretty large in both languages, with lots of overlap and opportunities for confusion and misunderstandings. Choice and interpretation involve weighing some subtle differences. When trying to translate in one direction or the other in this particular sphere, the following are particularly true:

(a) context is important; and

(b) certain patterns have been established, and pattern recognition allows us to communicate with a fairly good rate of success despite so much overlap.

I don't want to write a treatise on all the different permutations and meanings but I will try to give you a little taste, from the informal language world, not the legal world. I'll write a few illustrative sentences but keep in mind that on both sides, there is often more than one way of expressing the idea.

  1. Manolito, ya sabes, debes quitarte las botas en la entrada y dejarlas en el tapete. | Manolito, you know you're supposed to take your boots off in the entrance and leave them on the mat.

  2. Es tarde, debería acostarme ya, pero esta pregunta es interesante. | It's late, I should [OR ought to] go to bed, but this question is interesting.

  3. De veras hay que llegar con máximo 15 minutos de retraso, si no, la doctora no los verá, son súper estrictos en este consultorio. | You really must [OR have to] arrive no more than 15 minutes late, because otherwise, the doctor won't see you. They're incredibly strict in this medical office.

  4. Cuando empieza a hervir, tienes que bajar la lumbre. | When it starts to boil, you have to turn down the heat.

    Note: this is a bit stronger than debes bajar la lumbre | you have to turn down the heat. Similarly, "Tengo que irme ya" is stronger than "Debo irme ya."

  5. No me contestaron. ¿Debo llamar otra vez? | There was no answer. Should I try again?

  6. Es imprescindible entregar algo antes de la medianoche, si no, saco cero en esta tarea. | It's imperative to hand something in by midnight; otherwise, I'll get a zero on this homework.

  7. ¿Forzosamente tienes que cortarte las uñas aquí? | Must you cut your fingernails in here?

Things can get more complicated, e.g. "debería haber incluido este ejemplo" and debías llamar.

If things get confusing, the following can be helpful:

Es obligatorio....

Es recomendable que ...

Sería buena idea ...

(Note about legal language: As a parent with no legal training, one of my Office for Civil Rights education disability complaints failed because my son's 504 plan used the verb "should" instead of "must" or "will." I have never forgiven the investigators for failing to understand that the people who sit around the table writing the 504 plan are not lawyers.)

  • 1
    Grain of salt? Keep a bag of salt handy when using Google Translate. A bushel if the language is not Indo-European.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 11:37
  • @WGroleau - I politely sent OP to a specific alternative other than Google Translate. This site has nothing to do with non Indo-European languages. Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 13:23
  • I am OP, and I did see your link. I didn't say anything bad about linguee, I said Google Translate, which does produce garbage for non-Indo-European languages and which I have seen reverse the meaning of Spanish and Italian. But I also wasn't looking for a "panoramic view" in asking about one particular word.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 14:05
  • @WGroleau - So you are, sorry! Well, let's get back to your question and my answer. Is there anything I can clarify further? Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 14:28

The best and most precise translation for "should" is debería(s), it's important to mention that debería(s) and deber are actually different.

Deber is used and conjugated when something is mandatory, whereas debería(s) is a special conjugation of deber used only for advice.

The way to conjugate deber when something is advisable is:

  • I should - Yo debería
  • You should -Tú deberías
  • He should - Él debería
  • She should - Ella debería
  • It should - Eso debería
  • We should - Nosotros deberíamos
  • You (plural) should - Uds. deberían
  • They should - Ellos deberían
  • It not only answers the question, it shows that a lot of teachers AND a lot of textbooks are wrong.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 13:09
  • They're not necessary wrong, it's just that the explanation of why "debería(s)" is a special conjugation of "deber" is even more complicated that I've explained (sorry for that, i didn't have to much time to answer). However, if you are interested in the more detailed explanation, I can rewrite the answer. Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 2:54
  • @walen - I don't think that's needed here, because (a) that's not what OP was asking, and because (b) as Alicia cited, that part has been answered elsewhere. Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 5:29
  • @walen: not always. For a simple question on another site, I was redirected with "already has an answer to your question." But finding the simple answer to a simple question is not easy when there are 28 answers, most going FAR "beyond that," and answers contradicting each other all have plenty of upvotes.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 15:32
  • No, I said "another site." And there seems to be two types. One has the message that you question is a duplicate, and the other message is "this question has your answer." The second is what they gave me, and indeed, my answer probably is somewhere in the disaster they pointed me to. So, I'm just saying that going beyond might generally be a good thing, but it can be carried too far.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 15:40

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