Get What You Want in Chinese: When to Use 要 vs. 想 vs. 想要
In English, it’s common practice to interchange “want” and “need” when communicating desires, but there’s a clearer distinction in Chinese.
You’ll also learn that 要 (yào), 想 (xiǎng) and 想要 (xiǎng yào) can all be translated as “to want.”
So, how do you know which one to use?
You may be tempted to stick with 要, since it was likely the first one you learned. But 要 isn’t always the appropriate word of choice.
Read on to learn when and why you should use 要, 想 and 想要.
- Why You Can’t Always Use 要
- Use 要 for a tangible or material desire
- Use 想要 to be polite about a material desire
- Use 想 for future plans
- Use 要 for an immediate action
- Negate 要, 想 and 想要 with 不
- Bonus: How to Express Needs in Chinese
Why You Can’t Always Use 要
要 is one of the easy Chinese verbs you learn in the beginning.
You also learn early on that it can be used to answer yes or no questions about desires—saying 要 when you want something and 不要 when you don’t.
But you can’t use it all the time, because:
- you may want to be more polite by using 想要.
- you need to express a specific degree of wanting, as 要 is the strongest.
- the circumstance may require a different word, like using 想 to discuss plans.
- the degree of urgency matters, as 要 implies immediacy.
Use 要 for a tangible or material desire
Every time you’re shopping, ordering food or simply stating an object desire in conversation, you’ll use 要.
Here are a few examples:
他要一瓶啤酒。 (tā yào yì píng pí jiǔ.) — He wants a (bottle of) beer.
我要一杯拿铁。 (wǒ yào yì bēi ná tiě.) — I want a (cup of) latte.
她要蓝色的裙子。 (tā yào lán sè de qún zi.) — She wants the blue dress.
Although “I want” statements can seem rather demanding in English, it’s not actually considered rude in Chinese.
Use 想要 to be polite about a material desire
If you want to be more polite when expressing your wants, you may use 想要. This is the equivalent of saying, “I’d like” rather than, “I want.”
他想要一瓶啤酒。 (tā xiǎng yào yì píng pí jiǔ.) — He’d like a (bottle of) beer.
我想要一杯拿铁。 (wǒ xiǎng yào yì bēi ná tiě.) — I’d like a (cup of) latte.
她想要蓝色的裙子。 (tā xiǎng yào lán sè de qún zi.) — She’d like the blue dress.
It’s perfectly acceptable to leave 想 out of the equation, but if it eases your mind to use the polite version, then go for it, by all means.
Use 想 for future plans
Has the topic of hopes and dreams come up in conversation? Whether you’re talking about goals for the future or plans for the evening, 想 is the word to use.
In the context of desires, 想 can mean “I want” or “I’d like.”
我想去马尔代夫。 (wǒ xiǎng qù mǎ ěr dài fū.) — I want to go to the Maldives.
妈妈想吃四川菜。 (mā mā xiǎng chī sì chuān cài.) — Mom would like to eat Sichuan food.
他想在新西兰工作。 (tā xiǎng zài xīn xī lán gōng zuò.) — He wants to work in New Zealand.
Use 要 for an immediate action
If you want something to happen right away, 要 offers a sense of immediacy.
我现在要买。 (wǒ xiàn zài yào mǎi.) — I want to buy it now.
You’d also use it when you’re speaking to a taxi driver, for example.
我们要去火车站。 (wǒ men yào qù huǒ chē zhàn.) — We want to go to the train station.
So, like 想, you can use 要 to talk about plans in the immediate future.
Negate 要, 想 and 想要 with 不
All three of these Chinese verbs can be negated with 不 (bù) — no, not.
For example, when the waiter asks if you want coffee, you could say:
我不要咖啡，谢谢。 (wǒ bú yào kā fēi, xiè xiè.) — I don’t want coffee, thanks.
If you’re discussing a friend’s upcoming plans, you might say:
他不想上大学。 (tā bù xiǎng shàng dà xué.) — He doesn’t want to go to college.
And if you’re talking with a shop attendant, you could use:
她不想要那件衬衫。 (tā bù xiǎng yào nà jiàn chèn shān.) — She doesn’t want that shirt.
Bonus: How to Express Needs in Chinese
Talking about your needs is much simpler than discussing your wants because the words aren’t as conditional.
Here are some verbs you can use to describe needs in Chinese:
需 (xū) — to need, to require
需要 (xū yào) — to demand, to need, to require
必须 (bì xū) — to have to, must
得 (děi) — to have to, to ought to, to need to, must
If the matter is really pressing, you can use:
急需 (jí xū) — to urgently need
You can negate all of the words for “need” with 不.
There are, however, many additional ways you can say “I don’t need” in Chinese:
不必 (bú bì) — no need, don’t have to
不消 (bù xiāo) — to not need; needless to say
不着 (bù zháo) — to not need; no need
不用 (bú yòng) — to not need; no need
甭 (béng) — a contraction of 不用
用不着 (yòng bù zháo) — to not need, to have no use for
没有必要 (méi yǒu bì yào) — there’s no need to (do something)
何必 (hé bì) — why should; there’s no need
何须 (hé xū) — why should; there’s no need
大可不必 (dà kě bú bì) — to not need; not necessary
While there are a lot of vocabulary terms to describe wants and needs, you only really need a few to get your point across.
It’s good to know the specificity of the terms, though. After all, it’s that deeper understanding of linguistic concepts that’ll improve your overall fluency in Mandarin.