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:

我要那个玩具。

Wǒ yào nàge wánjù.

I want that toy.

我要吃糖果。

Wǒ yào chī tángguǒ.

I want to eat sweets.

谁要去游泳?

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:

我要找到我的钥匙。

Wǒ yào zhǎodào wǒ de yàoshi.

I need to find my keys.

去美国要申请签证。

Qù Měiguó yào shēnqǐng qiānzhèng.

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

买汽车要花很多钱。

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.

葡萄要先洗一洗再吃。

Pútáo yào xiān xǐ yī xǐ zài chī.

We should wash the grapes before we eat them.

生病时要多喝水。

Shēngbìng shí yào duō hē shuǐ.

You should drink more water when you're ill.

你学习中文要努力一点。

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”:

不要碰我的东西。

Búyào pèng wǒ de dōngxī.

Don't touch my stuff.

什么都不要说

Shénme dōu búyào shuō.

Don't say anything.

不要看我。

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:

不要说话了。

Búyào shuōhuàle.

Stop talking.

不要嘲笑我了!

Búyào cháoxiào wǒle!

Stop mocking me!

不要这样了!

Bú yào zhèyàng le!

Stop it!

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

别误会我。

Bié wùhuì wǒ.

Don't misunderstand me.

别打扰我。

Bié dǎrǎo wǒ.

Don't disturb me.

别离开我。

Bié líkāi wǒ.

Don't leave me.

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

不要再喝了。

Bùyào zài hēle.

Don't drink any more.

你不要见她了吧。

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:

他们要来这里吃饭。

Tāmen yào lái zhèlǐ chīfàn.

They're going to come here to eat.

我们明天要去颐和园。

Wǒmen míngtiān yào qù Yíhéyuán.

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

看起来要下雨了。

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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