I recently wrote a question about the modal должен, explaining that this modal is very hard to me because it has very different meanings.

As my question was deemed too broad and put on hold, I would like to ask a very specific question: How should I interpret Phrases (1)-(4) below? These phrases have no context and have to be interpreted per se, as they are article titles.

(1) Должен ли парень платить за девушку на свидании? (Source)

(2) Почему каждая женщина должна уметь флиртовать: мужской взгляд (Source)

(3) Должен ли Путин уйти? (Source)

(4) Я должна была быть мужчиной (Source)

I am confused as to how I can determine the meaning of должен in the absence of any context. In Phrase (1), does должен mean a necessity for the guy (if he wants to successfully start a romantic relationship) in view of the actual mentality of girls? Or is the phrase about the ideal order of things in terms of fairness? Or is it about a cultural norm? Or some internal urge a normal guy must have? In Phrase (2), does должен mean a necessity for women, a wish of men, advice to women, or an expectation of the author about women's capabilities? In Phrase (3), does должен mean a prediction about the future, advice to Putin, an ethical necessity, or what? And Phrase (4) made me especially puzzled - I should have been a man, I must have been a man, I had to be a man, or what does it mean?

Ideally I would like to see the precise meanings and proper English translations of Phrases (1)-(4) as well as explanations how you determine the meanings of these titles without reading the articles, but any helpful responses are welcome.

  • 7
    (sigh) Konnichiwa, Mitsuko-san. 1) You can't (and you're not supposed to) determine the exact meaning of a title without reading the article. One of the golden rules of translators says: "Titles are translated last". 2) Unfortunately, in the nowadays mass-media you (or anyone for that matter) might not be able to determine the meaning of the title even after you have read the article.
    – tum_
    May 18, 2019 at 16:23
  • 1
    .. because a title is used as a clickbait and this function of it is becoming more and more prevailing. The meaning is sort of a dying out secondary thing.
    – tum_
    May 18, 2019 at 16:28
  • No offence intended, but many of your questions could be easily answered by consulting and comparing a few online dictionaries and sites, such as 'Reverso', 'Яндекс', etc. A dictionary will give you all the standard translations. Beyond that, it is up to you to decide, based on your own experience in life and understanding of the article, what the word means in context.
    – VCH250
    May 18, 2019 at 17:25
  • @tum_ Oh, I asked my question because I assumed that the native speakers are somehow able to surmise the meaning of such phrases even in the absence of any context. More specifically, I assumed that должен has a default meaning, which has to be taken as the intended meaning unless the context suggests otherwise. Your comments suggest I was wrong.
    – Mitsuko
    May 19, 2019 at 9:01
  • @Mitsuko able to surmise the meaning of such phrases - not possible if a phrase is deliberately ambiguous. A native speaker (if he/she bothers to pay attention, many people just don't) will notice that a phrase can be understood this way or that way. должен has a default meaning - careful here, can you define what meaning is? должен does have a (very broad) meaning (you cannot say it's a meaningless word, can you?), the context narrows down this meaning. And this is in no way Russian specific. I do not speak Japanese but I'm sure this applies to Japanese just as well.
    – tum_
    May 19, 2019 at 9:20

5 Answers 5


Without knowing the context or guessing at all at the true meaning of the phrases, I'll just give some syntactical explanations I hope will help

1) All of them. It's a general word that includes all of those possibilities in its definition. Should a man pay for any reason?

2) Phrases like должен(на) уметь, знать, понимать, etc. are interpreted simply as should (be able to, know, etc.) They most often mean "it is best if they knew, could..." Occasionally it means expectations about their abilities, but this has an informal register and is clear from context. Other more specific meanings would be clear from context.

3) Clearly not a prediction since it's phrased as a question, but even if it was "Путин должен уйти", we still wouldn't think it's a prediction as those would be phrased different if stand-alone and out of context. Such as "Путин уходит/уйдет/скоро уйдет" "Путин собирается уйти" But all of the other possibilities you mentioned, yes. For any reason.

4) Должен(на) был(а) can mean should have or had to. Must have means "probably was/did". In this case it could be both but should have is probably more likely because this phrase stands by itself without context (without reading the article) and can be understood in its own. Though it could be a story about a woman who had to pretend to be a man at some point in the past. So yeah, ambiguous.

As you've probably discovered, должен is a very versatile word that can be used to express a whole range of meanings. If you want to avoid possible ambiguity, there are other words like стоит, подобает, обязан, пришлось, etc.


As for me this question is very tricky, though I was born in Moscow and Russian is my native language.


1) here I think they are going to discuss a cultural norm - is it still actual today

2) here this word is like advice - why do men think that this skill can be useful for women

3) it is like ethical necessity - many people don't like him in some way

4) this woman was born a woman, but she feels like she is a man, so she wants to have been born a man

  • Thanks a lot. I asked my question because I assumed that the native speakers are somehow able to surmise the meaning of such phrases even in the absence of any context. More specifically, I assumed that должен has a default meaning, which has to be taken as the intended meaning unless the context implies otherwise. Or rather a hierarchy of default meanings. Your answer suggests I was wrong, as you seem to make guesses.
    – Mitsuko
    May 19, 2019 at 9:13
  • 1
    Furthermore, at least some of your guesses are wrong. For example, the article about paying for the girl on a date answers this question as follows: Как и во многих утверждениях по типу «парень должен» — парень не должен. Ты можешь заплатить за девушку, а можешь не платить. Правила, по которым ты определяешь «платить или не платить», определяешь ты сам. И придерживаешься их потом. Да, вот это одно из немногих утверждений по типу «парень должен», в котором парень действительно должен. Парень должен придерживаться правил, которые он установил для себя сам
    – Mitsuko
    May 19, 2019 at 9:15
  • So it is not about ethical norms, but about something else.
    – Mitsuko
    May 19, 2019 at 9:16
  • the default meaning for "должен" is "must", but in Russian I think that this verb in fact has a lot of meanings, in your example we have an "answer", in your question we have an invitation to discussion - these situations are different
    – Kelly
    May 19, 2019 at 10:38

The modal 'должен' is cognate with the noun 'долг' meaning 'debt'. Knowing that, you understand that 'должен' should be considered through the prism of speaker's values. Even in English 2 speakers can say 'must' for mutually exclusive actions. When you say 'должен' you believe in some thing, you've made some decision. So having relative 'должен' and 'долг' it is easier to remember to respect someone's belief.

So the context in your examples 'Will the speaker feel that all is right if he/she [pay instead of a girlfriend]/[can/can't flirt]/[Putin retires]/[was a women]'.

In English it is not correct to use 'I feel it is right', so we use there 'should' if we believe and 'must' if we strongly believe. You will never misunderstand if replace every 'должен' with 'should' (example-4 is not clear enough when using 'must').

That was all about Russian, the following are my interpretations.

All questions depend on answerer's opinion: in Phrase-1 it will be 'in view of the actual mentality of girls' only if the girl was asked the question. Different people can feel fairness, cultural norms and normality differently (certainly if the majority of people follow some opition, you can be more confident it is normal/a cultural norm).

All your assumptions about the Phrase-2 are right, because we know that the answerer is a man (or a women who thinks she understands men): it is an advice to women, because the author thinks it is necessary for them, if they want to perform as men, as the author things, wish, because women are capable to do that (and again: according to the authors opinion).

Phrase-3 is about, yes, the advice and an ethical necessity (in authors opinion).

Phrase-4 means 'I should have been a man': I suppose she feels her manners are more similar to the mens' ones and/or she understands men better than women.


  • Thanks a lot for such a detailed answer. What is most puzzling to me about должен is that this modal does not differentiate between the internal need and wishes by others. I guess I will ask a separate question about it.
    – Mitsuko
    May 20, 2019 at 21:43
  • The same is for 'must', Russian only marks there is a prism of speaker's values
    – Makaleks
    May 21, 2019 at 22:12

I would translate the first three sentences like:

  1. Should a guy pay for a girl on a date?
  2. Why every woman should know how to flirt: the male view.
  3. Should Putin quit?

The cases aren't complete, for sure, but they would show something in common. Verb 'должен' in cases translate as 'having the responsibility'. The responsibility might be different, but the counterpart of the actor is meant to be unresponsible. So we could see the context of all phrases:

  1. Girl must not pay for herself.
  2. Man must not know how to handle a conversation.
  3. Russia must not kick him out.

The verb 'должен' should not be confused with another one 'должен был бы'. It's different verbs with different meanings. 'должен был бы' translates as a possibility.

  1. I would be a male.


1) Должен ли парень платить за девушку на свидании? Does the boy have to pay for the girl?

(2) Почему каждая женщина должна уметь флиртовать: мужской взгляд Why does every woman has to be able to flirt?

(3) Должен ли он уйти? Must he quit?

(4) Я должна была быть мужчиной I should have been a man

Now, for the meanings:

Должен - must: Ты должен защищать Родину! - You must protect motherland!

Должен - have to: Я должен сидеть здесь и ждать - I have to sit here and wait

Должен - should have: Я должен был стать музыкантом, но мне медведь на ухо наступил - I should have become a musician, but I have no ear for music

Должен - must be or maybe: Должно быть, он опоздал из-за пробок - Maybe, he was late due to traffic jams

Должен - ought to: Это незаконно, мы должны сообщить полиции - It is illegal, we ought to report it to the police

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