avoir besoin de vs il me faut vs devoir

One of my intermediate French students recently asked me to do a lesson explaining the difference between “avoir besoin de”, “il me faut” and “devoir”.

These are all ways of expressing what you want or need. While they’re kind of synonymous there are some subtle differences, which are important to know. J’ai besoin de really doesn’t mean to must. You use “devoir” for that. For example, when you say, “Je dois travailler” there’s a strong sense of must or necessity. In this sense “avoir besoin de” is a bit lighter than “devoir” and means to need. Generally, “Il me faut” denotes or is used to suggest needing something in order to do something else.

Let’s build some sample sentences exploring all three expressions.

AVOIR BESOIN DE

“Avoir besoin de” translates “to need”. It can be followed by both an infinitive to denote having to do something or a noun to denote needing a specific thing. It really doesn’t mean “must” like “devoir”. Let’s look at some examples:

  • J’ai besoin d’un café.
    I need a coffee.
  • J’ai besoin de boire un café.
    I need to drink a coffee.
  • J’ai besoin d’acheter une nouvelle voiture.
    I need to buy a new car.
  • Tu as besoin pratiquer plus souvent.
    You need to practice more often.
  • Nous avons besoin de reviser ces verbes.
    We need to review these verbs.

IL ME FAUT

This usage of “il faut” is generally not understood very well. There are three usages of il faut: 1) il faut + INFINITIVE, (il faut travailler, you have to work), 2) il faut que tu fasses (subjunctive, il faut que + personal pronoun + verb in subjunctive) and 3) il me faut + NOUN (I need). Today we’re looking at Il me faut. Often it’s followed by “pour” (for or in order to) then another verb in the infinitive.

  • Il me faut un an pour apprendre tous ces mots.
    I need a year to learn all these words.
  • Il me faut une fourchette pour manger les légumes.
    I need a fork to eat the vegetables.
  • Il me faut deux-cent dollars pour acheter un billet.
    I need $200 to buy a ticket.
  • Il me faut des billets pour aller au théâtre.
    I need some tickets to go to the movies.
  • Il me faut une voiture pour partir en vacances.
    I need a car to go on vacation.
  • Il me faut les clés de la voiture pour la démarrer.
    I need the car keys to start it.
  • Il me faut quelques minutes pour réféchir à cette question.
    I need a few minutes to think about this problem.

DEVOIR

Now we’ll take a quick look at the verb “devoir”. Devoir translates to must or to have to and is followed by an infinitive. It can also be translated to should (example below). Another useage of the verb is for “to owe” as in owing money. In this case it’s followed by _ then a noun. The verb denotes a strong sense of “must” or something I have to do.

  • Je dois rentrer chez moi avant 18h00 ce soir.
    I must return home by 6pm tonight.
  • Je dois acheter quelque chose pour la famille.
    I must buy something for the family.
  • Je dois faire le ménage avant l’arrivée des invites.
    I have to do the house work before the guests arrive.
  • Qu’est-ce que je dois faire? Je n’aime pas les décisions!
    What should I do? I don’t like decisions.
  • Je pense que je te dois cinq dollars.
    I think I owe you five dollars.
  • Est-ce que je te dois quelque chose?
    Do I owe you something?
  • Tu ne ne dois rien.
    You don’t owe me anything.
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