要 (yào) meaning ‘to want’ may have been the first verb you learned when you began your Chinese learning journey. It was for me, and even if I sounded like a 3-year-old child saying ‘我要 (wǒ yào), 我要。。。(wǒ yào…)’ all the time, 要 (yào) gave me the freedom for ask for things I wanted in a supermarket, restaurant or cafe. However, I soon began to hear the sounds of 想 (xiǎng) and, as many beginners of Chinese started to add it to sentences without really being sure how to use it.
As a child I was often told ‘“I want” never gets’, and so instead of saying ‘I want a bike’ I was taught to say ‘I would like a bike’, and being a child, I thought I had a larger chance of getting one if I asked politely. This is how I learned to distinguish between 想 (xiǎng) and 要 (yào).
Although I have just simplified the differences between 想 (xiǎng) and 要 (yào), below is a fuller explanation of 想 (xiǎng) and 要 (yào) and their brother 想要 (xiǎng yào) and how to use them correctly in a sentence.
能愿动词 Auxiliary ‘Can-Wish’ Verbs
能愿动词 (néng yuàn dòng cí) are auxiliary verbs that can be used before verbs and adjectives to express objective possibility or necessity, man’s subjective will and to give opinions, feelings and suggestions.
The following characters and bigrams are commonly used auxiliary verbs:
(If you click on the links below, click the ‘Learn more’ button in our dictionary to get more information about each character.)
To express possibility: 能 (néng), 能够 (néng gòu), 会 (huì), 可 (kě), 可能 (kě néng), 可以 (kě yǐ), 得以 (dé yǐ).
You can learn more about 能 (néng), 会 (huì) and 可以 (kě yǐ) in our article The 3 Cans: What’s the Difference Between 会, 可以 and 能？
To express will: 愿意 (yuàn yì), 乐意 (lè yì), 情愿 (qíng yuàn), 肯 (kěn), 要 (yào), 愿 (yuàn), 想 (xiǎng), 想要 (xiǎng yào), 要想 (yào xiǎng), 敢 (gǎn), 敢于 (gǎn yú), 乐于 (lè yú).
To express necessity: 应 (yīng), 应该 (yīng gāi), 应当 (yīng dāng), 得 (děi), 该 (gāi), 当 (dāng), 须得 (xū děi), 犯得着 (fàn bu zháo), 犯不着 (fàn bu zháo), 理当 (lǐ dāng).
To express evaluation: 值得 (zhí de), 便于 (biàn yú), 难于 (nán yú), 难以 (nán yǐ), 易于 (yì yú).
The main function of auxiliary verbs is to modify predicate phrases. The predicate phrase modifies the subject, which is a place, person or thing, so the predicate must either be a verb, or contain a verb in order to make a change.
Auxiliary verbs can be used to answer a question without further explanation, for example:
你愿意嫁给我吗？(nǐ yuàn yì jià gěi wǒ ma) Will you marry me?
愿意. (yuàn yì) I do.
The differences between auxiliary verbs and normal verbs:
- There can be no object after auxiliary verbs
- Auxiliary verbs can not be used with dynamic auxiliary particles such as 着 (zhe), 了 (le) and 过 (guò)
- Two auxiliary verbs can not be used together
Note: Some auxiliary verbs are also normal verbs, such as 要 (yào). This means that 想要 (xiǎng yào) is not incorrect. When 想要 (xiǎng yào) works as an auxiliary verbs, it means “to want to”, but when 要 (yào) works as normal verb, 想 (xiǎng) + 要 (yào) means “want (to have/get)”.
Use of 想要 (xiǎng yào): 我想要学游泳。 (wǒ xiǎng yào xué yóu yǒng) I would like to learn swimming.
Use of 想 (xiǎng) + 要 (yào): 我想要这本书。 (wǒ xiǎng yào zhè běn shū) I want this book.
X不X (X bù X) is always used to express doubt or conjecture, for example, 会不会 (huì bú huì) ‘are you able to?’ and 可(以)不可以 (kě yǐ bù kě yǐ) ‘Can you or not?’
你会不会来？(nǐ huì bú huì lái?) Will you come (or not)?
“不X不” (bùXbù) is always used to express emphasis or a euphemism, such as 不敢不 (bù gǎn bù) or 不该不 (bù gāi bù).
For example, 他不敢不说实话。(tā bù gǎn bù shuō shí huà) He dare not tell lies. (He has to tell the truth.)
How to Use 想 (xiǎng) and 要 (yào)
要 (yào) generally expresses ‘the will to do something’. 要 (yào) can be expressed negatively by using the following, 不要 (bù yào), 不想 (bù xiǎng) and 不打算 (bù dǎ suàn).
想 (xiǎng) expresses ‘desire or wish’ to do something and to have an ‘intention’ to complete the action, but may not do so.
你想去图书馆吗？(nǐ xiǎng qù tú shū guǎn ma) Do you want to go the library?
天太冷了，我要去买件外套。(tiān tài lěng le, wǒ yào qù mǎi jiàn wài tào) It is too cold, I want to go and buy a coat.
Compared to 要 (yào), 想 (xiǎng) emphasizes personal will. We can add an adverb to express strong will, or add 有(一)点儿 (yǒu yī diǎnr) to express a lesser desire.
Sometimes, 想 (xiǎng) and 要 (yào) can replace each other, but in the following situations, cannot.
我很想学画画。(wǒ hěn xiǎng xué huà huà) I want to learn painting very much.
- Persistent adverbs of time + 想 (xiǎng)
我很久以前就想去冰岛完了。(wǒ hěn jiǔ yǐ qián jiù xiǎng qù bīng dǎo wán le) I have wanted to travel Iceland for a long time.
你一定要来看我。(nǐ yī dìng yào lái kàn wǒ) You must come and look me up.
Use the following characters to fill in the gaps and make a sentence:
想 要 会
1. 他身体不舒服，所以今天不______来了。 He does not feel well, so he will not come today.
2. 下周有比赛，我_____去游泳馆练习。 There will be swimming competition next week, so I will go to the swimming pool to practise.
3. 我很_____去游乐场。 I really want to go to the playground.