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.)
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？
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)”.
你会不会来？(nǐ huì bú huì lái?) Will you come (or not)?
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.)
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.
- Persistent adverbs of time + 想 (xiǎng)
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.