I'd like to clarify the meaning of the structure no tener que + verb.

Suppose I say the following:

No tengo que salir.

Which one of the following does the statement above mean?

  1. I don't have to leave.

  2. I have to not leave.

In the first situation, I am expressing that I don't have to leave meaning that I can stay if I wanted to, whereas in the second situation I am expressing that I have to stay.

In general, my question is which part gets negated, the "have to" or the "verb" that comes after?


  • "No tengo que salir" = "I don't have to leave". The (2) would be "No puedo salir" meaning "i have to stay" because in Spanish it would be super weird to say "tengo que NO salir".
    – DGaleano
    Apr 11, 2019 at 18:12
  • 1
    It would be super weird to say ‘I have to not leave’ in English too.
    – Traveller
    Apr 12, 2019 at 1:30
  • Yes, I agree that it would weird to say that in English. Apr 12, 2019 at 4:04
  • As a rule of thumb, you can translate "to have to" as tener que and "to must" as "deber" Apr 12, 2019 at 9:58

2 Answers 2


"No tengo que salir" is ambiguous in Spanish.

It may mean lack of necessity or lack of obligation (I'd venture to say this meaning is more usual):

  • I don't have/need to leave.

or negative obligation or prohibition:

  • I mustn't leave.

Context will define the correct meaning:

Por suerte no tengo que salir. (Lack of obligation/necessity)

No tengo que salir bajo ningún concepto. (Prohibition)

For the prohibition meaning, other forms will be more usual:

  • No debo salir.
  • Está prohibido que salga.
  • No me permiten salir.
  • Tengo prohibido salir.
  • No puedo salir. (Where "no puedo" means "I'm not allowed to". This sentence is also ambiguous, allowing for an incapacity meaning: "I'm unable to".)

Beginners will do fine learning the following two structures as negations of "Tengo que salir":

No [me] hace falta salir

This means I don't have to leave or There's no need to leave.

No hay que salir

This means I must not leave or I better not leave.

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