For example, "I have a job" and "I need a job" are opposite statements, but "I have to get a job" and "I need to get a job" are the same. I understand that they are no longer modifying the same words, but it doesn't seem to make sense why the meaning switches.

  • 13
    Words have more than one meaning. Some words are their own antonyms. You just have to accept that language is not designed, it's an accumulation of millennia of people, living and dead, using it. Language does not adhere to the rules of formal logic, and we should not expect it to.
    – Dan Bron
    Sep 27, 2015 at 19:25

4 Answers 4


Have to is a periphrastic modal idiom. Need is a semi-modal verb. Must is a modal auxiliary verb.

First, have to is an idiom.
Have to is not a usage of the verb have, in any of its senses, though it used to be.

You can tell this because have to is pronounced differently from have two, for instance.

  • I have two shovels in the driveway. (have two = /hævtu/, with a /v/)
  • I have to shovel in the driveway. (have to = /hæftu/, with an /f/)

This idiom is a periphrastic modal -- an idiomatic construction that means the same as a modal auxiliary verb, in this case, the verb must. So

  • I have to get a job = I must get a job.
  • This has to be the place = This must be the place.

although have to and must are quite different with negation

  • I don't have to get a job I must not get a job.
  • This doesn't have to be the place This must not be the place.

Second, need is an odd verb in a number of ways; it's called a "semi-modal" verb because it used to be a modal auxiliary verb, but, along with dare, it can now only be used as a modal auxiliary verb

Modal auxiliary verbs
a) must be the first auxiliary in a verb phrase,
b) must be followed by an infinitive without to,
c) never take tense endings, and
d) don't have any non-finite forms (participles, gerunds, or infinitives).

But ... need can only be used this way in a negative context. I.e, it's a Negative Polarity Item (NPI).

  • We don't need to consider this further = We need not consider this further.
  • We need to consider this further but not *We need consider this further.
    (the second example in each case is the modal usage; the first is not, and
    thus requires Do-Support, present tense marking, and an infinitive with to.)

So need to is just the ordinary usage of an ordinary verb need, which does not mean (though it isn't quite an opposite of) have in its sense of 'possess'. It does, however, mean pretty much the same thing as have to or must; all of them have similar deontic senses meaning 'be obliged to' for one reason or another.

Have to and must also have epistemic senses, dealing with logic and probability; however, need seems not to have an epistemic sense. This may have been lost along with need's syntactic modal superpowers as it slipped from full modal to semimodal over the centuries.

  • That stuff about 'need' and 'dare' is fascinating. What are your thoughts on: 'We need consider this no further' and 'I dare say this matter is closed'
    – Brondahl
    Sep 28, 2015 at 9:20
  • 2
    Something seems amiss in this sentence: "…it used to be a modal auxiliary verb, but […] it can now only be used as a modal auxiliary verb". I'm struggling to understand what is supposed to be contrasted with what there.
    – Andriy M
    Sep 28, 2015 at 11:27
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    Your observation on pronunciation is accent- and/or dialect-specific. Standard British English speakers don't say have to /hæftu/.
    – nekomatic
    Sep 28, 2015 at 11:37
  • @AndriyM: It used to be a modal auxiliary verb that could be used in a non-negative environment, but it can now only be used as a modal auxiliary in a negative environment. Sep 28, 2015 at 21:39

The meaning of the word "have" differs when used in the two phrases "have to" and "have a". In the phrase "have to", the word "have" acts as a synonym for "need" in the fact that the speaker needs or has to do something. In the phrase "have a", the word "have" is used to show possession or state of being.

Welcome to the illogical world of the English language.

  • 5
    Actually, have to corresponds to must more than it does to need to. "Need to" speaks to a dependency or a requirement; "have to" speaks to an obligation. "Have to" suggests enforcement. On its own, "need to" does not. (This is perhaps a reason why some enforcement agents in the US have recently taken to using "You need to...": It may sound softer, but hearers know full well that it is backed up by the force of the State. It sounds almost like friendly advice about something that is good for you, something that you want.)
    – Drew
    Sep 27, 2015 at 20:18

Idioms are sometimes more than the some of the definitions of their parts.

have to and need to are synonyms, or closely thus with have to more explicitly indicating something obligatory and need to implying necessity without necessarily an imperative obligation.

The difference is subtle and in most cases can be used interchangeably:

I need to/have to go to the bathroom.

Either would be valid and sufficient to explain the need, though have to would imply an urgency (now) where need to would normally imply at an earliest convenience.

Note also this would be considered more adverbial usage than usage as a verb, considering a verb is implied, if not explicitly stated, after need to/have to.

Meanwhile, the verbs need and have imply a direct object.

I need a hammer.
(A hammer is necessary).
I have a hammer.
(A hammer is in my possession).

However, you can also have to have and need to have (Which mean roughly the same thing; see the first part.)


Where did you read that they are antonyms?

The understanding of the concept antonyms can only be achieved thro one and only one language = Mathematics. Specifically, high school set theory, aided by illustration of Venn diagrams.

Like any word, the word have has many degrees of freedom. Each degree of freedom imbues the word with a distinct meaning.

Often, when we use a word, we use it as a combination of a few its degrees of freedom.

Similarly, the word need too has many degrees of freedom.

A degree of freedom = a dimension in an orthogonal dimensional framework.

The words have and need share many common dimensions, hence sharing many common meanings.

But also, there are meanings in the word have that fall outside the enclosure of the set of meanings of need, vice versa.

But a meaning of a word being outside the set of meanings for another word would not make them antonyms.

Otherwise, since a piano is mostly outside the range of dimensions of a television - would that make piano the antonym of television ?

To establish an antonym situation, you must narrow down to the degrees of freedom of a word, to precisely reduce your intentions to the relevant dimensions of a word,

  • to establish the existence of a binary state, then we could say one state is the opposite of the other
  • or to establish a spectrum/range of states with only two possible extremities, then we could say one extremity is the opposite of the other.

But, you have not established any reduction in the degrees of freedom of the two words in which their respective dimensions are in binary opposition.

Neither have you considered that the two words share common traits, aka an intersection in the Venn diagram of their degrees of freedom.

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