It’s an unremarkable weekday evening and a salaryman is collapsed in the aisle of a dilapidated discount department store.
He is, for some reason, sobbing.
A concerned customer service representative approaches him to ask what’s wrong, to which he replies:
“I want to buy a ネクタイ (ねくたい) — necktie! I went to men’s fashion, to male accessories and even to the discount Halloween costume sections, but alas, I still find myself bare-necked and empty handed. Where in the world can a guy buy a necktie these days?”
The staff member quickly whips out her inventory book and after a few seconds thumbing through the index she responds:
“How strange, it seems that all of our ties are located in the Japanese learning resources aisle. What in the world could a necktie have to do with learning Japanese?”
It turns out a tie—or rather a -tai—is essential for saying what you want in the Japanese language. That means we can learn all about expressing wants and desires in Japanese in terms of the best mnemonic device: the humble necktie.
The Problem with Asking “How Do I Say ‘I Want’ in Japanese?”
One of the most common (and poorly explained) bits of advice given to people learning a new language is to think in their target language, not to translate into it. The problem with trying to translate directly is that what sounds natural in our native language doesn’t necessarily sound the same in our target language. This leads to output that’s often unnatural, even if it’s understandable.
In other words, the problem with saying “how do I say X in Japanese” is that Japanese probably doesn’t say X like that.
It might be linguistically possible to translate anything into another language but for whatever reason—be it cultural differences, the simplicity of certain grammar points over others or even pop culture trends—the lines between A and B in translation often get a little blurred. As a result, the most natural translations aren’t necessarily the word-for-word ones.
This is a huge headache for professional translators but it also leaves a much more tangible problem for learners like us to tackle. It takes time for our world to acquire meaning in a second language that exists simultaneously and independently of our native language, so how do we avoid translation when we might have only just started learning?
Today, we’re going to discuss types of desire that are grammatically distinguished in Japanese but not in English. Even though all are encompassed by a mere two forms of the verb “to want” in English, trying to simply translate this “to want” into Japanese will probably yield incorrect results in three out of four situations.
To deal with this specific problem, and also to shift away from translating in your head, I’d like you to follow a two-step process.
1. Don’t think about the words you’re trying to translate but rather about the idea you want to express.
2. Learn how the Japanese language conveys this idea.
In other words, don’t think about how to say “I want a (something)” in Japanese. Instead, think about expressing “I want (something)” as opposed to “I want (to do something).”
To get a better understanding of this concept, it can help to see it in use by an authentic resource like the videos on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. That means you can hear real Japanese speech as it’s used by native speakers.
For an example of expressing desires, check out a video about a clown who wants a job or an advertisement for how to find the information you want with Google Now.
Use these and FluentU’s other engaging video-based lessons to get a better handle on expressing the idea of “I want…” in Japanese.
How to Say “I Want” in Japanese, Explained with Ties
1. Using ～ほしい with nouns: I want a necktie, not a bow tie
We’ll look at ～ほしい first because, although it’s backwards compared to English, the construction is very straightforward to make. Adding ～ほしい to a noun expresses your desire for that noun.
There are three steps:
1. Pick a noun. Any noun.
3. Add ほしい (informal) or ほしいです (formal) after the particle.
ほしい is an い-adjective and some of its basic conjugations look like this:
Present positive: ほしい — want
Present negative: ほしくない — don’t want
Past positive: ほしかった — wanted
Past negative: ほしくなかった — didn’t want
So, let’s go back to our story and rewind a little bit. Say that the staff member hadn’t clearly heard the salaryman because he was sobbing too loudly. She might say:
Excuse me. What is it that you want?
Prompted, the man repeats that he wants a necktie.
A necktie… I want a necktie.
The staff member nods and says “right this way, please.” She leads him down a few aisles and, outstretching her hand toward a rack of ties, uses an inversion of the structure we just learned.
Is there something that you want?
(In this case, saying ほしいもの is a bit like saying “the thing that’s desired.”)
The salaryman blinks, incredulously, as he follows the shopkeeper’s gaze to realize that he’s looking at a shelf full of bow ties. A little frustrated, he responds:
(ぼうたい じゃなくて、ねくたいが ほしいです！)
I want a necktie, not a bow tie!
If you want to specifically say that you don’t want something, は is often used instead of が. Our salaryman could just as well have said:
(あっ、すみません。ぼうたいは ほしくないです。ねくたいが ほしいです。)
Ahh, sorry. I don’t want a bow tie. I want a necktie.
2. Using ～たい with verbs: I want to buy this necktie
If you don’t want a thing, but rather want to do something, you should use the ～たい form with a verb.
This form shows that you want to do the action that the ～たい is attached to.
This form can also be made in three steps.
1. Pick a verb. Any verb.
2. Conjugate that verb to its ～ます form.
3. Replace ～ます with ～たい.
Here are some examples of the form in use:
見る (みる) — to see: 見る → 見ます (みます) → 見たい (みたい) — I want to see/look…
売る (うる) — to sell: 売る → 売ります (うります) → 売りたい (うりたい) — I want to sell…
買う (かう) — to buy: 買う → 買います (かいます) → 買いたい (かいたい) — I want to buy…
It might be a little bit strange to think about, but the ～たい form of verbs is unique because it conjugates in the same way as い-adjectives do. That’s good for us, though, because it means that we can use the exact same conjugations for ～たい and ～ほしい!
Here’s the verb 買う, for example.
Present positive: 買いたい (かいたい) ― I want to buy (something).
Present negative: 買いたくない (かいたくない) ― I don’t want to buy (something).
Past positive: 買いたかった (かいたかった) ― I wanted to buy (something).
Past negative: 買いたくなかった (かいたくなかった) ― I didn’t want to buy (something).
To make these polite, simply add です at the end of each of the above examples.
Let’s go back to our story. The two are now standing in front of a rack of neckties. Observe how the staff member asks our salaryman for a bit more information.
(では、どんな ねくたいを かいたいですか？)
So, what sort of necktie do you want to buy?
(Note: While we normally use ～たがる form to talk about the desires of others, as we’ll learn in section four, the normal ～たい form is still used if you’re asking someone a question).
The salaryman looks at the selection of ties and, a bit disappointed, uses an inversion of this structure, with the word もの — “thing.”
(うーん、しちゃくしたい ものが ひとつも ないな。)
Hmm, I don’t even see one that I want to try on.
The staff member, shocked at this very blunt retort, responds:
(あの、さきほどの ぼうたいを もういちど みたくないですか？)
Uhh, don’t you want to look at those bow ties from earlier one more time?
Unenthusiastically, he grabs a tie at random and begins walking toward the cash register.
I’ll take this one, then.
3. Using ～てほしい with verbs: I want you to sell me this necktie
Japanese simply tacks that ～ほしい from earlier onto the end of a て form verb to convey the idea of “wanting someone to do something for you.”
This is great because it means that we don’t have to complicate the sentence structure by adding a conjunction like “for” and we can also continue using the same conjugations we learned earlier. Again, there are only three steps.
1. Pick a verb. Any verb.
2. Conjugate that verb to its て form.
3. Add ～ほしい directly onto the end of the verb’s て form.
You can check your understanding of this over at JLPTsensei.
Here are some examples:
売る (うる) — to sell: 売る → 売って (うって) → 売ってほしい (うってほしい) — I want you to sell…
飲む (のむ) — to drink: 飲む → 飲んで (のんで) → 飲んでほしい (のんでほしい) — I want you to drink…
辞める (やめる) — to quit/resign: 辞める → 辞めて (やめて) → 辞めてほしい (やめてほしい) — I want you to quit…
Back at the store, the disappointed salaryman approaches a cashier’s booth and, looking up, notices that the cashier is wearing an incredible tie. He exclaims:
(うわ！その ねくたい、うって ほしいです！うって ください！)
Holy smokes! I want you to sell me that necktie! Please sell it to me!
You might notice that the expressions “I want you to (do something)” and “please (do something)” sound quite similar. Saying “please” might be a little more direct, but aside from that, these forms are mostly interchangeable.
Thus, having been asked to sell the tie that’s part of his uniform, the cashier might respond:
(おこらないで きいて ほしいのですが、この ねくたいは ひばいひん です。)
Please listen and don’t be angry but this necktie isn’t for sale.
The salaryman, desperate, leaps over the table and tries to tear the tie from the cashier’s neck. They brawl for a few minutes before security arrives to take care of the situation. Panting and exasperated, the cashier might rudely exclaim:
(このみせに にどと きてほしくないです！)
I don’t want you to ever return to this store!
4. ～たがる with verbs: He wanted to kill me!
Unfortunately, it’s a little more difficult to talk about what other people want to do in Japanese. This is because Japanese marks words to show evidentiality or explain how a given piece of information was acquired. This normally requires grammar that’s more difficult than the ～たい form itself and there are a few ways to go about it, but to avoid complicating this post too much, I’ll only talk about one of them.
To express that “someone else wants to do something” you can:
1. Add a judgment to the end of a ～たい form verb.
2. Replace the ～たい in a ～たい form verb with ～たがる.
3. Add ～ですか to the end of a ～たい form verb to ask if someone else wants to do something.
If you’re curious, ～たがる is actually the normal ～たい form used with the suffix ～がる. The suffix ～がる conveys the meaning of “seeming” or “showing signs of,” so ～たがる actually means something like “showing signs of wanting to do something.”
That aside, it’s okay to think of this form as meaning “(someone else) wants to do something.” For example:
殺す (ころす) — to kill: 殺す → 殺します (ころします) → 殺したい (ころしたい) → 殺したがる (ころしたがる) — (He) wants to kill…
～たがる conjugates in the same way as type one (う) verbs like 怒る (おこる) — to be angry or 走る (はしる) — to run. It’s often used in the ている form.
Here are some basic formal conjugations of this:
Present positive ている: 殺したがっています (ころしたがって います) ― (He) wants to kill…
Present negative ている: 殺したがっていません (ころしたがって いません) ― (He) doesn’t want to kill…
Past positive ている: 殺したがっていました (ころしたがって いました) ― (He) wanted to kill…
Past negative ている: 殺したがっていませんでした (ころしたがって いませんでした) ― (He) didn’t want to kill…
And here are the casual versions (the definitions are the same; only the level of formality changes here):
Present positive ている: 殺したがっている (ころしたがって いる)
Present negative ている: 殺したがっていない (ころしたがって いない)
Past positive ている: 殺したがっていた (ころしたがって いた)
Past negative ている: 殺したがっていなかった (ころしたがって いなかった)
Let’s say that the store manager comes out to reprimand the cashier for not giving the customer the respect due of his position. After all, the customer is king. Flustered, the cashier responds:
(だ…だ…だけど、おきゃくさんは わたしを ころしたがって いました！)
B..bu..but, the customer wanted to kill me!
To which the manager responds,
(そんなことが あるわけない でしょう。おきゃくさんは、ただ あなたの ねくたいを さわりたがって いただけでしたよ。)
That’s crazy. All he wanted was to touch your tie!
After such a response, it might be safe to say that the cashier is 仕事を辞めたがっています (しごとを やめたがって います) — wanting to quit his job!
While expressing desire in Japanese might be a bit more complicated than in English, the different ways to say “I want” in Japanese are also quite unambiguously marked. With a bit of practice, it’ll become second nature before you know it!
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