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I often hear the phrase "what our students have to say" in testimonials, and I am confused with the grammar here.

It can be taken in two ways as follows.

1) Our students have something (what) to say
2) Our students have to say something (what).

I think 2) is more likely it since it sounds like an honest opinion.

Could anyone give some insights into this?

  • If, by (2), you mean "Our students are required to say something", then, no.  It means our students have something to say. – Scott May 16 '16 at 16:49
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    Meanings (1) and (2) are pronounced differently in standard English. The first uses /v/ and the second /f/. – Peter Shor May 16 '16 at 16:53
  • Hi Scott, Thank you for your prompt replies. I was thinking of something like "What do you think of the movie?" "I have to say it is quite boring." – Nick Costello May 16 '16 at 16:57
  • Hi Peter, Thank you. but In writing, it is difficult to know whether is pronounced f or v. like this belmont.edu/languages/areas-of-study/german/… – Nick Costello May 16 '16 at 17:04
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You're talking about two meanings of have. The first is to hold or possess, and idiomatically we talk about holding an opinion as "having something to say." The second is to be under complusion, as in

I have to go to the dentist today.

So, you're right:

Let's listen to what our students have to say

can have (see what I did there?) two meanings, either let's listen to our students' own opinions or let's listen to them parrot what they've been told to say.

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  • And those two meanings of have can and do lead to confusion. What do you have to do tonight? It must be especially difficult for a newcomer to English to grasp when one is intended and not the other. So although the OP's question is not well articulated I do understand the problem. – WS2 May 16 '16 at 16:56
  • So this is an ambiguous sentence which can be taken in two meanings especially in writing. Am I right? – Nick Costello May 16 '16 at 17:30
  • No; the expressions involved are the main verb have and the semi-modal have to (sense 'must'). – Edwin Ashworth May 16 '16 at 18:59
  • @NickCostello Native speakers will likely take sense 1) first, and some will realize that sense 2) slyly undercuts sense 1). It is ambiguous. – deadrat May 17 '16 at 0:30
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Let's listen to what our students have to say. =

Let's hear opinions/testimonials from our students.

( 'have' is the verb, and 'to' is part of the infinitive of the next verb.)

For example:What do we have to eat?, meaning, What food is there available to eat?

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  • Thank you, Cathy. I understand what it means.But my problem is why you need " have to(modal verb like must)" there. Can it be simply "what our students say"? Why you need " have to" there. Does "have to" add some other nuance to the phrase? Or It means "what / our students / have (verb) / to say"? – Nick Costello May 16 '16 at 17:24
  • @NickCostello You can also say: Let's hear what our students say. But the other way is more common. 'have to', however, is not being used as a modal of obligation. It's just an expression, similar to: What have you got to say for yourself? or: I have something to say. – Cathy Gartaganis May 16 '16 at 17:31
  • So, it doesn't make much difference whether this "have" is taken as a verb or as a part of modal verb, have to. – Nick Costello May 16 '16 at 17:49
  • @NickCostello 'have' is the verb, and 'to' is part of the infinitive of the next verb. – Cathy Gartaganis May 16 '16 at 17:52
  • Sorry. since must is considered a modal verb, I thought its equivalent, have to, is also considered modal verb. My last question (favor). Is it correct to use "have to(must) say" to express your opinions? For example, I have to say the play was abysmal. If so, does it sound like honest, truthful opinions to you? – Nick Costello May 16 '16 at 18:16

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