Posted by: janecronin | March 31, 2019


“Deber” is an interesting verb as it can be used in two completely different ways.  It can stand in for what we refer to in English grammar as a “modal” verb, but also has a meaning in its own right as a main verb.  I think that last statement needs some clarifying.  In English we refer to modal verbs as verbs that in some way modify the nature of the following main verb.  Examples of modal verbs are “can”; “should”; “must”; “could”; “may”; and “might”.  If you think of a sentence using these verbs you will find that they have to be followed by a second verb to make sense.  For example: “She can play the violin; “You shouldn´t give him any more money”; “I must visit my aunt more often”; “they could go there tomorrow”; “You may be right”; “we might have the right answer”.  In each case the modal verb is followed by a second verb, in these examples – play, give, visit, go, be and have, and they introduce the ideas of ability, possibility, duty and obligation.

Now returning to our Spanish, “deber” basically means “must” when it is followed by another verb: “Debes pagarlo todo” (You must pay all of it); “¿Debemos volver mañana?” (Must we – do you have to – come back tomorrow?). Another common form of “deber” in this function is the conditional “debería” which means “should”.  In other words it reduces the idea of “obligation” and conveys the concept of “advice”.  “Deberías descansar más” (You should, or ought to, rest more) – you are not obliged to do so, but it is my advice to you.

Apart from this “modal” use, “deber” also means “to owe”.  In this case it can be used as a single, main verb in a sentence.  A way of asking to pay in a bar is “¿Qué te debo?” (What do I owe you?) or “¿Cúanto debo?”  (How much do you I owe?).  Of course we don´t only owe money, we may owe someone an apology or an explanation: “Te debemos una disculpa” (We owe you an apology); “La alcaldesa nos debe una explicación” (The mayoress owes us an explanation).

The English word “debt” comes from the same Latin root as the verb “deber” although “debt” in Spanish is “deuda”.  There is another verb related to “deuda” which is “endeudar” which means “to get into debt”.

Somewhat confusingly, and unusually for Spanish, there is also a noun “deber” which means “duty”.  This is unusual in the sense that verbs and nouns in Spanish tend to look very different from each other.  “Es mi deber” means “it is my duty”.  This is the same word in the plural that is used to mean homework.  “Tengo que hacer los deberes” (I have to do the – or my – homework).  Finally, we can use the reflexive form “deberse” when something is “due to” – “los extremos del clima se deben al cambio climático” (Extremes of climate are due to climate change).

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