300 Days of Better Writing

September 17, 2014

YOU MUST HAVE TO


I received an interesting question from an English teacher in Iran who wanted to know the differences, if any, between “must” and “have to/has to.” This is an interesting question because the expressions are nearly identical. To answer, I had to think not only about their strict definitions but also about how they are used.

The terms “must” and “have to/has to” are modal auxiliaries that communicate (1) an obligation to perform some action or (2) that some state of being or action is highly likely. They are nearly interchangeable.

SLIGHT DIFFERENCES

These expressions have differing connotations when used to communicate an obligation. Unlike “have to/has to,” “must” communicates a sense of moral obligation such that the action is the morally correct action. They also have slightly different connotations when used to express states of being or the likelihood of an action. Unlike “must,” “has to/have to” can describe the absence of any other choices.

Finally, “must” may express an opinion as a moral judgment, as in, “In my opinion, this action I am telling to you perform is the right action. If you do something else than what I am telling you, you are doing something bad.” Thus, similar to “should,” “must” can take an opinion and change it into a moral judgment. This is true because morals are value judgments, which are subjective.

MUST

In some contexts, “must” is similar to “should” in that “must” communicates a sense of moral obligation to perform some action or moral correctness of a choice. In other contexts, “must” communicates that a certain state of being is so likely that any other possibility is inconceivable.

“She must pay her bills on time or she will go to jail.” – moral obligation to perform some action

“She must pay her bills on time because she never gets late payment notices.” –highly probable state of being

“You must protect your children.” –moral obligation, the right choice

“You must be tired by now.” –highly probable state of being

“I must stop at the corner.” –the only correct state of being or action

HAS TO/HAVE TO

In most contexts, “has to/have to” communicates a requirement to perform some action, similar to “must” but without the sense of moral correctness. In other contexts, “has to/have to” communicates that a certain state of being is so likely that any other possibility is inconceivable.

“She has to pay her bills on time.” –obligation to perform some action.

She has to pay her bills on time because she never gets late payment statements.” Highly probable state of being

“You have to protect your children.” An obligation or requirement

“You have to be tired by now.” –highly probable state of being

“I have to stop at the corner.” –the only possible state of being, with no other options

USING THESE WORDS

However, as mentioned, in casual speech these words are often interchanged. A particularly astute person can draw on the connotative differences to argue against a statement that he “must” or “has to” perform some action. A person may use one connotation of the expression, and another person can argue using a differing connotation. This will create conflict. If it doesn’t create conflict, it will, at least, create confusion.

For example, if my wife says, “You have to take out the trash,” I could respond, “I could watch TV instead.” Here, she is using the connotation that expresses an obligation, but I respond as if she meant that no other options are possible. I reply that her statement is wrong because I do have other choices.

On the other hand, if my wife says, “You must take out the trash,” I could respond, “No, I probably won’t.” Again, she is expressing an obligation using words that can communicate an opinion about the morally correct choice. I reply as if she meant that taking out the trash is the most likely, or highly probable, action, which, in my opinion, it isn’t.

In practice, neither response will be well received. My response is pretty much guaranteed to create conflict.

The best communicator will seek to understand what the other person intends to communicate with “have to/has to” and “must,” and then will respond to that intended meaning, regardless of the words used.

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July 1, 2014

Provide credible references for new or controversial information.


Unless you are a recognized expert about a topic, your reader will have no reason to believe what you write. For example, I could tell you, “You shouldn’t eat eggplant. It’s bad for you.” You will ask, rightly, “What makes you an expert on eggplant?”

Unless the reader has a reason to believe that you are an expert on the topic, you need to provide a reference. A reference gives credibility to the information. A reference provides the source of the information you are communicating. This is especially important if your information is controversial, new, or contradictory to what the reader believes.

Name the source of the information, if known. If you have specific names, use them. This sentence contains a credible reference: “Louise Wilson, a researcher at the University of Nebraska, claims that people should not eat eggplant.”

You can also be more general, if needed, by using titles and descriptors, such as researchers, industry experts, or government officials. For example, you can write, “Nutritionists claim that people should not eat eggplant.”


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June 5, 2014

Use quotes around words to draw special attention or when using them in a new or ironic way.


When you are using a word in a new way or you want to create ironic emphasis, you can place the word in quotes. This is the same as using “air quotes” while speaking. Generally, you do this to indicate that the meaning you are communicating is different than the usual meaning of a word. Consider this sentence.

“He tried to be ‘friendly’ with the woman seated next to him at the opera.”

The quotes around “friendly” indicate that you are communicating something other than normal friendliness. (Perhaps he tried to put his arm around her while pretending to stretch.)


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Top writing strategies and expert instruction from
each of Precise Edit’s writing guides

  • 1 critical article from
    Precise Edit Training Manual
  • 8 days of instruction from
    300 Days of Better Writing
  • 5 top strategies from
    Bang! Writing with Impact
  • 2 essential word choices from Which Word Do I Use?
  • 1 major comma use from Zen Comma
  • 1 section on main verbs from Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing

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Purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

June 2, 2014

Use object pronouns as objects, not subject pronouns.


When you need a pronoun for an object, use an object pronoun. Your choices are me, you, him, her, it, us, them, and whom.

Applying this tip is pretty simple, but many people make mistakes when the object contains two or more things. They may use a subject pronoun instead: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, and who. These subject pronouns cannot be used as objects, except for you and it, which are both types of pronouns.

Consider this sentence.

“Mary drove Tom and I to the house.”

This sentence is incorrect. “I” is not an object pronoun; it is a subject pronoun. The correct pronoun is me. The sentence should read as follows.

“Mary drove Tom and me to the house.”

Because most people won’t make this mistake when the sentence only has one object pronoun, you can use this trick: remove one object, say the sentence aloud, and determine if it still sounds right. Then do it with the other one.

For example, you would say “Mary drove Tom to the house. Mary drove I to the house.” The first one sounds right, but the second doesn’t. You would say “Mary drove me,” so you know the complete sentence should be “Mary drove Tom and me to the house.”


This is the strategy for day 56 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

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