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:
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:
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.
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”:
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:
You can also replace 不要 with 别 in most situations. A couple of examples:
These kinds of commands might also be expressed in English with “any more” or “again”, for example:
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.
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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