Why is "have to" not listed as a phrasal verb in the dictionary? "have" means to be in possession of something while "have to" means "obliged to". So "have to" seem to be non-compositional in terms of meaning with respect to the meanings of "have" and "to". Can "obligation" be expressed using the word "have" without it being followed by "to"?

  • Being non-compositional does not make something a phrasal verb. In fact, have to is an idiomatic modal auxiliary, paraphrasing must. It is certainly not a phrasal verb, which has completely different syntax. Feb 15, 2014 at 23:38
  • It's not a phrasal verb but a phrasal modal.
    – William
    Apr 10, 2017 at 4:27

1 Answer 1


Various grammatical sects profess various dogmata about phrasal verbs, but have to doesn't really fit any of them. That to isn't an ordinary preposition or adverb married to HAVE—it's a some-other-sort-of-particle married to the infinitive which follows.

One simple test:

ok I can’t put up with him. → It’s him I can’t put up with. → He’s who I can’t put up with.

ok She’s into metal. → It’s metal’s she’s into. → Metal’s what she’s into.

 ∗ We have to hurry. → It’s hurry we have to. → Hurry’s what we have to.

The same thing is true of the other periphrastic modals: BE able to, BE about to, BE going to, and so forth. They don’t behave like the other things that are called phrasal verbs so you need to call them something else.

  • Would you agree that semantic composition does not provide "have to" with its meaning?
    – Baz
    Feb 15, 2014 at 22:05
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    @Baz Not entirely. Historically, HAVE to VERB X is a variant of HAVE X to VERB. Feb 15, 2014 at 22:10
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    Putting aside the vexed question of the exact definition of "phrasal verb", I just eyeballed this fairly long list of terms which are considered to fall into the category. I don't see any that include the "infinitive" to. Phrasal verb it ain't. Feb 15, 2014 at 22:12
  • "Complementizer" is the other-sort-of-particle name, @StoneyB. For-to, POSS-ing, ACC-ing, that, Wh-Q are the principal ones in English. Feb 15, 2014 at 23:31
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    That's the way I'd read it; I shall achieve in time is a non-restrictive relative without which. _To make the punishment fit the crime is my object all sublime. Reverse or extrapose the infinitive subject. But you might be right, too. Lots has been left out, or put in, or smeared over, in pursuit of meter and rhyme. As Sullivan put it in a different context, "This particularly rapid unintellible patter isn't generally heard, and if it is it doesn't matter". Feb 16, 2014 at 0:22

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