Exploring Modal Words in Russian: Expressing Obligations and Needs

Jokes about “what if people spoke a language taken from textbooks” abound. Clichés, awkward dialogue, nonsense – these are all things that learners of any language encounter on a daily basis. One reason textbooks lack authenticity is that they only show us how to name and describe things, whereas in real life, we almost never do this in our native language. Instead, we persuade, complain, blame, plead – and a host of other practical things because that’s what language is for. In other words, we act with words; we usually speak to achieve clear pragmatic goals.

For the practical use of language, we often need so-called modal words. Each language describes the world of modal words and expressions in its own way, according to its cultural and communicative practice. The Russian language is no exception. In this article, we’ll dive into 10 words for expressing your needs and obligations, exploring their semantic and grammatical features.

Grammar note for curious minds:
Many of the modal words in Russian form a special grammatical class called predicative. In Russian, predicative words are words that describe a state of an object and often form impersonal (i.e., subject-less) sentences. The syntax of these sentences is usually reversed, for example, the one who feels cold becomes the object, not the subject: Мне холодно (I feel cold). Or the agent may not exist at all: Здесь холодно (It’s cold here). That was a brief introduction to authentic Russian syntax, and now let’s talk about the specific words that can help you say that you need to do something, or that you should have done it a long time ago.

1. Нужно (Nuzhno): The Essential Need

Нужно is the main and most common word for expressing the need to do something. To construct a sentence with this word, you need to put an agent in the dative case and an infinitive verb after нужно:

“Извини, мне нужно идти.” – Sorry, I have to go.

Here, “я” (I) is in the dative case – “мне” (to me). If translated literally, it would be “It is necessary for me to go.”

Pro-tip: for “should have done…” just add было

Вашему сыну нужно было лучше готовиться к экзаменам! – Your son should have studied better for the examы!
In this case you should use было together with нужно. Also, I’d recommend the imperfective готовиться instead of the perfective подготовиться for “to study, to prepare” because the imperfective conveys the idea of hard work, of serious, time-consuming study.

2. Надо (Nado): The Objective Necessity

Another very common word for expressing obligations and needs is надо. It is very similar to нужно, but there are some subtle nuances. Надо usually refers to an objective need to do something, while нужно is the need that a speaker recognizes as his personal obligation:

“Ну, всё, мне надо идти.” – Okay, right, I gotta go. I mean, I would like to stay, not that I personally want to leave you, but not that I have a choice, I obey the objective necessity.

3. Необходимо (Nyeobkhodimo): It’s Mandatory

Необходимо carries a slightly formal and dry tone. Interestingly, over the past decade, this word has gained popularity, as noted by the Russian National Corpus. Russian National Corpus:

You’ll encounter this word in various formal documents, political speeches, and news reports. It’s no surprise that the most common collocation for “необходимо” is “отметить“:

Необходимо отметить, что республиканцы смогли продавить этот законопроект в парламенте.” – It should be noted that the Republicans were able to push through this bill in parliament.

4. Требуется (Trebuyetsya): Required

It appears as a reflexive verb (-ся) in the third singular (it), and all other grammatical forms do not carry the meaning of “should” or “have to.” In the past tense, it becomes “требовалось,” in the neuter gender.

Для получения визы требуется заполнить заявление и собрать десять тысяч документов.” – To get a visa, you have to fill out an application form and collect tens of thousands of documents.

“Что и требовалось доказать.” – Q.E.D., which was to be demonstrated.

5. СтОит (Stoit): telling others what they should do

If you want to give unsolicited advice, стоит is the word you need. Although technically a third-person singular verb, when acting as a predicative, this is the only form it can take (other than the past tense neuter стоило). Literally, it means “worthy,” but “should” or “should have” are the best translations.

“Дорогая, в твоём возрасте уже стоит подумать о детях!” — Honey, at your age, you should be thinking about having kids.

“Знаешь, тебе стоило промолчать, а не давать советы.” — You know, you should have kept your mouth shut instead of giving advice.

6. ДOлжно (Dolzhno): One Must

Должно, with the stress on the first syllable, is a bookish word for “must”:

“Делай, что должно, и будь что будет.” – Do what you must, and so be it.

Должно, with the stress on the last syllable, is a very common predicate to express expectations (as in should):

7. Должно (Dolzhno): Expressing Expectations

Должно, with the stress on the last syllable, is a common predicate to express expectations (as in should):

Сегодня должно быть холодно, одевайся теплее.” – It is going to be cold today, dress warmly.

8. Должен (Dolzhen): should, have to

You have probably seen this word in different genders, too, because it can also be a short adjective and express the idea of “have to” and “should.” Expressions with должен/ должна are common. Remember that this word doesn’t reverse the syntax, so use a subject in the nominative (я, not мне) and match the gender to the subject.

“Я должна встать в пять завтра, чтобы успеть на самолёт.” – I have to get up at five tomorrow to catch my flight.

“Магазин должен открыться в восемь.” – The store is supposed to open at eight.

9.Обязан (Obyazan): Obliged

Two more short adjectives to say “one must”: обязан and вынужден. The former means literally “obliged,” and the latter means “forced.”

“Ты не обязан рассказывать ей всё!” – You don’t have to tell her everything!

10. Вынужден (Vynuzhden): Forced

“Он вынужден покинуть страну.” – He’s forced to leave the country.

I hope you found this exploration of Russian modal words insightful and practical for your language learning journey. Remember to practice using these words in various contexts to solidify your understanding. Don’t forget to download the flashcards and share your own sentences using these words in the comments for further practice!