Do I Have to? Or Should I?
Il faut ! If you live or have travelled in France, you’ve probably heard these two short words over and over again. When do we use it exactly and how does the sentence construction work? We use il faut to express directions, orders and very strong suggestions. Il faut can be expressed in an impersonal or personal way. Instinctively, foreigners are likely to say “c’est nécessaire de”, each time they want to express “it’s necessary to”, but the French will almost always say “il faut”! Try to do the same…
There are two ways to use “il faut” – Impersonal and general or Personal and specific to the person you are talking to.
1) If you’re making it impersonal, then you don’t need to add a second clause with both a subject and a verb, but just a verb in its unconjugated infinitive form. The impersonal “It’s necessary to” in French is simply:
Il faut + verb in the infinitive form.
For giving directions: Il faut aller à gauche! = it’s necessary to go (turn to the) left!
For giving orders: Il faut arriver au travail tous les jours à 9 heures = it’s necessary to get to work everyday at 09:00!
For making strong suggestions: Il faut prendre son temps dans la vie… = It’s necessary to take one's time in life…
2) If you’re making it personal (which means adding que + a second clause with both a subject and a verb ), then it works like this:
Il faut que + subject + verb (in subjonctive form)
Personal using the above examples:
For giving directions: Il faut que vous alliez (subjonctif) à gauche = You must/have to go left.
For giving orders: Il faut que vous arriviez (subjonctif) au bureau tous les jours à 9 heures = You must/have to get to the office everyday at 09:00.
For making strong suggestions: Il faut que tu prennes (subjonctif) ton temps dans la vie…= You have to take your time in life…
Note: Il faut is the present conjugation of the verb falloir - it is a very unusual verb because you can only conjugate the verb with il!! You cannot say je faut, vous fallez, etc…
When expressing obligations or directions, you can either use il faut or the verb devoir! In the second choice, the verb is conjugated as such: je dois, tu dois, il/elle doit, nous devons, vous devez, ils doivent. Devoir implies a stronger obligation – almost a moral imperative – than il faut.
Vous devez finir votre travail ce soir = You have to finish your work tonight (no choice).
Elle doit partir = She has to leave.
What about when you want to suggest? What would you say? This is where it can get confusing. As you know, Devoir means “must” or “have to” in the present tense, BUT when devoir is conjugated in the conditional (equivalent of “would” in English), then this verb changes its meaning and it becomes “should”! This is how it works when devoir is used in the conditional:
Je devrais, tu devrais, il devrait, nous devrions, vous devriez, ils devraient = I should, you should, etc..
Demain, je devrais aller chez le coiffeur, mes cheveux sont vraiment trop longs ! = Tomorrow I should go to the hairdresser, my hair is truly too long!
Vous devriez acheter une nouvelle bagnole, car celle-ci est vraiment moche ! = You ought to buy a new car, since this one is really ugly !
At this point it is no longer an obligation but something that should eventually be done.