Five uses of 要 (yào) in Chinese grammar

要 (yào) is one of the most common words in Chinese, and it has a versatile range of uses. In this article, we'll cover five common uses of 要 in Chinese grammar: “want”, “need”, “should”, for commands and for future tense.

要 meaning “want”

The dictionary definitions for 要 always include “want” in English. 要 is the most direct and simple way of expressing a desire in Chinese. For example:


Wǒ yào nàge wánjù.

I want that toy.


Wǒ yào chī tángguǒ.

I want to eat sweets.


Shéi yào qù yóuyǒng?

Who wants to go swimming?

Notice how in the first sentence, 要 is the main verb, whereas in the last two sentences, 要 is an auxiliary verb.

As in English, expressing “want” in this way can be quite direct and abrupt, so be careful with it. See also: the difference between 想, 要 and 想要

要 meaning “need”

In much the same way as it can be used to express “want”, 要 can also express “need”. Have a look at these examples:


Wǒ yào zhǎodào wǒ de yàoshi.

I need to find my keys.


Qù Měiguó yào shēnqǐng qiānzhèng.

You need to apply for a visa to go to America.


Mǎi qìchē yào huā hěnduō qián.

You have to spend a lot of money to buy a car.

In the above sentences, 要 could be swapped with 需要 (xūyào) without a great deal of difference.

要 meaning “should”

要 can often be somewhat ambiguous as to whether it expresses “need” or “should”. Have a look at the example sentences below; you could interpret them as meaning “need” or “should” in English, but all of them use 要 in Chinese.


Pútáo yào xiān xǐ yī xǐ zài chī.

We should wash the grapes before we eat them.


Shēngbìng shí yào duō hē shuǐ.

You should drink more water when you're ill.


Nǐ xuéxí Zhōngwén yào nǔlì yīdiǎn.

You should put more effort into studying Chinese.

Often, 需要 is used to unambiguously express “need”. A lot of the time, though, the two concepts are not fully distinguished in Chinese sentences.

要 for commands

要 is often used to form imperative sentences in Chinese. That is, sentences that give commands. 要 is pretty much only used to form negative commands.

For example, 要 is the easiest way to express “don't”:


Búyào pèng wǒ de dōngxī.

Don't touch my stuff.


Shénme dōu búyào shuō.

Don't say anything.


Búyào kàn wǒ.

Don't look at me.

Note that when 不 comes before 要, it becomes second tone due to tone change rules.

You may know that the particle 了 (le) can be used to indicate a change of state. If you combine this with 不要, you get commands that express “stop”.

Here are some examples:


Búyào shuōhuàle.

Stop talking.


Búyào cháoxiào wǒle!

Stop mocking me!


Bú yào zhèyàng le!

Stop it!

You can also replace 不要 with 别 in most situations. A couple of examples:


Bié wùhuì wǒ.

Don't misunderstand me.


Bié dǎrǎo wǒ.

Don't disturb me.


Bié líkāi wǒ.

Don't leave me.

These kinds of commands might also be expressed in English with “any more” or “again”, for example:


Bùyào zài hēle.

Don't drink any more.


Nǐ bùyào jiàn tāle ba.

Don't see her again.

When 了 is used in this way, it often corresponds with “any more” in English.

要 for future tense

Finally, 要 can be used to express future tense. This is similar to many European languages that express future actions with words like “want” or “will”. You might say that technically an intent or desire is being expressed, but everyone understands it as a future action.

Some examples:


Tāmen yào lái zhèlǐ chīfàn.

They're going to come here to eat.


Wǒmen míngtiān yào qù Yíhéyuán.

We're going to go to the Summer Palace tomorrow.


Kànqǐlái yào xiàyǔ le.

Looks like it's going to rain.

The example sentences in this article will give you a good foundation for understanding 要 in all of its contexts (you could use them for sentence mining). Just remember that the best approach to Chinese grammar is to develop your general sense for the language rather than trying to memorise specific rules.

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