Cartago tem que ser destruída.

"Carthage must be destroyed." I'm wondering about the infinitive (ser): where does it come from? In what situations is the infinitive used after que: only with ter + que, or also with other verbs?

It looks strange to me, because I don't know of any similar construction in the other Romance languages. But it is not at all unlikely that I missed parallels: does a similar construction exist in any of them?

I know it doesn't exist in Latin: so in what way could it have developed from Latin constructions? Is it perhaps a combination of quod and the accusative with infinitive? I would appreciate any information that could help me put this construction in a broader perspective.

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    I would like to post a comment but I can't. Indeed, the correct translation in this case would be Cartago tem de ser destruída. Ter de express obligation, necessity, desire while ter que has as complement something, anything. If you read portuguese, you can read more in: embomportugues.blogs.sapo.pt/44634.html and brasilescola.com/gramatica/ter-que-ou-ter-de.htm
    – Beatrix
    Mar 1, 2012 at 0:06
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    There's a very similar construction in Spanish, tener que + Inf, which is also a periphrastic Necessary modal, equivalent to English have to + Inf. I'm quite sure neither existed in Latin. They're all novel syntactic constructions that avoid the swamps of modal auxiliarity. And the modal is required because Cato's original sentence used a gerundive, which expressed a Necessary modal sense of the original verb. The use of infinitive is probably just a recent development.
    – jlawler
    Mar 1, 2012 at 0:34
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    An equivalent construction is also found in Spanish: 'tiene que ser destruída" sound fine and is in wide use. Mar 1, 2012 at 0:38
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    @Beatrix, I converted your answer to a comment. Regarding the "tem de" versus "tem que", it's just a matter of taste (and prescriptivist nitpicking). "Cartago tem que ser destruída" is a perfectly grammatical sentence, at least in Brazilian Portuguese. It also expresses necessity, in the same way as "tem de", "precisa" ou "deve", as Mark Beadles pointed out. Mar 1, 2012 at 1:05
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    @Beatrix: My Portuguese is cough rusty, but I read your second link and was able to understand it. Otavio came up with a similar suggestion, which I interpreted as that there is some elliptic noun (tem algo que [è?] para ser). That seems to match your linked page, more or less. But that doesn't seem to fit here, since Cartago is the subject, and it seems very hard to supply the ellipsis here, if there is any. Or do you mean to say that que is incorrect here? If that is so, that just shifts the question to why the tendency exists for people to still use que here.
    – Cerberus
    Mar 1, 2012 at 1:15

3 Answers 3


I think the best way to figure out "why" a construction has to be a certain way is to see how it got to be that way, or whether it is usual or not for a language to do things this way. There are three issues:

  1. How does a verb meaning "to possess" develop a meaning where it expresses obligation
  2. Why does the following verb of the embedded clause appear in the infinitive?
  3. Why is que rather than de or something else used as a subordinator?

As for (1), Heine & Kuteva (2002: 333) name seven frequent grammaticalization sources for the concept of OBLIGATION. These are COPULA, DO, GET, NEED, OWE, H-POSSESSIVE, SUITABLE. (An H-possessive is "a marker of predicative possession expressed, for example, in English by have". (ibid.: 163)). So let's take it on their authority that it is frequent cross-linguistically for have-like verbs to end up expressing obligation. The fact that ter is, or is related to, a verb helps us to explain why this particular construction has to involved two linked clauses: a matrix clause containing the verb ter, and an embedded clause describing the obliged action.

On a side note, use of Latin habere does actually show up in this sense. (See towards the bottom of the CNRTL entry for avoir). The quote from Varro that is cited is "rogas ut id mihi habeam curare"

So, why is an infinitive used in the embedded clause? Here we can note that cross-linguistically, constructions involving two linked clauses often have a pivot-controller relation (see Van Valin 2005: ch.4) holding between arguments of the two clauses. An argument of one clause which is expressed (the "controller") is understood to be coreferential with an unexpressed argument (the "pivot") of another clause. Since the person who is obliged to do an action is normally the one who is doing the action, it makes sense for this construction to have a pivot--controller relation where the subject of the matrix clause will be the same as the subject of the embedded clause. The relevant property of the infinitive is that it is not marked for its subject; this is fine since it is unnecessary to indicate the subject. (I don't speak Portuguese, but I am guessing that you couldn't use one of the personal infinitives in place of the regular infinitive in this construction)

Why que instead of some other subordinator? My partial guess is that because the construction probably developed from one with similar meaning, but where ter has an object, e.g. "Tenho trabalho que fazer", it will just take the subordinator from that construction. Note that in French, for example, which has a similar construction avoir à + INF, the relevant form with an object for avoir uses à to introduce the infinitive: "j'ai ce travaille à faire".

Heine, B.; Kuteva, T. (2002). World Lexicon of Grammaticalization. CUP [please do not illegally consult the copy posted on scribd.com by some unscrupulous person]

Van Valin, R. (2005). Exploring the syntax-semantics interface. CUP.

  • That's right. The personal infinitives are not used in this construction. Mar 5, 2012 at 16:14
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    I think you are absolutely right! In Tenho trabalho que fazer., the emphasis is on the work, and needing to do it is secondary in . In Tenho que fazer trabalho. the emphasis is on the duty, and it seems more urgent. I bet the ter que + infinitivo just came about as a result of switching emphasis off the verb to convey urgency. Mar 14, 2012 at 6:46
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    Oops I forgot to accept your answer! Very thorough exposition. I was mainly wondering about the use of the conjunction where I would have expected a preposition, and you've answered that too, though as a "guess". If you ever find anything can confirms this, don't hesitate to notify me.
    – Cerberus
    Jun 16, 2012 at 23:06

Periphrastic modal constructions of the form 'have to' + infinitive are found in several Romance languages.

Spanish: haber/tener de/que 'have to'+ infinitive;

Portuguese: haver/ter de/que 'have to' + infinitive;

Several Southern Italian varieties also have this construction but it is mostly found in Ibero-Romance languages. In some Ibero-Romance languages this construction has expanded to take on aspectual meaning (eg in Abruzzo tenere a + infinitive expresses durativity) while in some other Romance languages (eg Sardinian) it is used to express future time reference.

This construction is rarer in the other Romance languages: French has avoir á/être á + infinitive while Italian has avere/essere da + infinitive, but the role of the construction is much more limited than in the Ibero-Romance languages.

The historical development of this discussion is discussed in "Verbal periphrasis in Romance" by Mario Squartini. In summary it was a process of grammaticalisation that occurred late in the development of the modern Romance languages and is still ongoing in some of them.

  • About Sardinian, we both have "aere" (from hăbēre I suppose) and "tennere", but at least in my variety, we only use the first one to form the future, I think (I'm always trying to think of counterexamples, but can't find anything).
    – Alenanno
    Mar 2, 2012 at 11:15
  • @Alenanno Thanks for inserting the full reference, I was a bit lazy! And I've slightly re-worded for clarity. Mar 2, 2012 at 11:53
  • @Alenanno So what form does the construction have in Sardinian? I would guess something like aere a + infinitive? Mar 2, 2012 at 11:56
  • Exactly. That's the structure. The translation is not just "future", it can also be interpreted as "future intention" too I think. Unfortunately, there aren't actual grammars for Sardinian like for other languages, as it is mostly spoken.
    – Alenanno
    Mar 2, 2012 at 12:04
  • @Alenanno Okay, so the construction still has a modal (irrealis) function, but it also marks futurity. Yes, there doesn't seem to be a single comprehensive grammar of Sardinian, but there's the work of Eduardo Blasco Ferrer, and this work on Sardinian syntax. Mar 2, 2012 at 12:29

User Beatrix had posted an answer that has been deleted. It contained some useful information that I will summarize here.

Beatrix suggested that some consider the use of ter que without a direct object to ter, as in my Question above, to be bad style (although others disagree). There is the idea that tenho de is used to express "I have to [verb]", while tenho [noun] que is used with a direct object to mean "I have [something] to [verb]". It would then be recommended that ter de be used when ter does have a direct object, while ter que is to be used when there is such a direct object, because que is a relative pronoun that refers to an antecedent.

If we assume that this idea comes from somewhere, leaving aside stylistic issues, it supports the hypothesis that ter que with no direct object to ter developed from the older ter [object] que, as suggested by Lovegren above.

  • I agree with this. I also don't see why it's weird, "I have things to do" -> "I have to do things." "Tenho coisas que fazer." -> "Tenho que fazer coisas." Jun 13, 2014 at 20:53
  • @CayetanoGonçalves: Why is that not weird? It is not normally possible in similar languages to turn a relative pronoun into a conjunction and then having it introduce an infinitive.
    – Cerberus
    Jun 14, 2014 at 9:37
  • I am going to have to disagree. The que here is not serving as a relative pronoun, instead it's an auxiliary word. It's functioning the same here as it is in English to, as in "I have to go", in fact the exact choice of auxiliary word is arbitrary. In European Portuguese you may also use de in place of the que, "Eu tenho de sair" is also correct. Even in German, zu functions as an auxiliary verb in "haben zu in "Du hast zu gehorchen." (You have to obey.) Jun 14, 2014 at 18:42

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