The difference between 想 (xiǎng), 要 (yào) and 想要 (xiǎngyào) in Chinese grammar

The Chinese words 想 (xiǎng), 要 (yào) and 想要 (xiǎngyào) can seem very similar, which makes them difficult to use properly. They do have distinct meanings and uses though, which we’ll try to clear up here.

想: would like to, to think, to think of

想, 要 and 想要 can all mean ‘want’ in some sense, but 想 is the least forceful of the three. We think a good way to get to grips with 想 is to bear in mind the various different things it can express. We’ll look at the main ones here. Try to link them together into a coherent whole and you should have a better feeling for what exactly 想 expresses.

As always, remember that the best way to get a real feel for the language (语感) is to expose yourself to it as much as possible, and to practice using it as much as possible. Explanations like this can give you a head start, but you’ve still got to get out there and let your brain’s language module do its work!

想 + verb as ‘would like to’

In many cases, it might be better to think of 想 as being more like ‘would like to’ rather than ‘want’. When used for expressing wants, 想 can only be followed by a verb or verb phrase. In other words, 想 only means ‘want’ when it’s an auxiliary verb.

If you use 想 directly with a noun, it means something a bit different (see below). Remembering this little detail should make it easier to get a sense of its exact meaning.

Have a look at some example sentences:

我想去巴黎。

Wǒ xiǎng qù Bālí.

I'd like to go to Paris.

我想吃鲁菜。

Wǒ xiǎng chī lǔcài.

I'd like to eat some Shandong food.

我不想见她。

Wǒ bùxiǎng jiàn tā.

I don't want to see her.

我不太想喝可乐。

Wǒ bù tài xiǎng hē kělè.

I don't really want to drink coke.

Notice in each example 想 is followed by a verb. Also look at how 想 does mean ‘want’ in these situations, but it’s not very forceful. If a speaker wants to be very clear and emphatic in expressing ‘want’, they’re more likely to use the much more forceful 要.

Because of the difference in how forceful they are, 想 can often be a more polite substitute for 要. For example, when ordering or requesting something, saying 想 is usually more polite than saying 要.

Another feature of 想 is that it can be paired with 很 or 好 to mean ‘really would like to’ or ‘really want to’. Have a look at some examples:

我们很想知道!

Wǒmen hěn xiǎng zhīdào!

We really want to know!

我好想告诉你!

Wǒ hǎo xiǎng gàosu nǐ!

I'd really like to tell you!

我好想再去那里一次。

Wǒ hǎo xiǎng zài qù nàlǐ yīcì.

I'd really like to go back there.

Have you spotted the overall theme of 想 as an auxiliary verb? It expresses ‘to want to’ or ‘would like to’, but only hypothetically. The speaker is not confirming whether or not they are actually going to do or achieve the thing. By using 想, they only express their desire, but they don’t specify their actual intention. They may or may not actually do or achieve the thing.

Have a look at a couple more examples that illustrate this point:

他很想回家,可是最后他没有。

Tā hěn xiǎng huí jiā, kěshì zuìhòu tā méiyǒu.

He really wanted to go home, but in the end he didn't.

她很想买辆自行车,所以就买了。

Tā hěn xiǎng mǎi liàng zìxíngchē, suǒyǐ jiù mǎile.

She really wanted to buy a bike, so she did.

As you can see, simply expressing the want with 想 isn’t enough to confirm what happened in the end or what the actual intention was. The second part of the sentence makes sense, because it describes what happened, whereas the first part with 想 only describes what someone felt like doing.

Finally, here’s a sentence with some slightly higher-level vocab, if you’re into that sort of thing:

那天我很想放弃,可是我还是坚持下去了。

Nèitiān wǒ hěn xiǎng fàngqì, kěshì wǒ háishì jiānchí xiàqùle.

That day I really wanted to give up, but I still persevered.

Looking at all the example sentences here should give you a better feel for how 想 just talks about desires and feelings, but not concrete intentions or actions.

想 as ‘to think’

To get a better sense of what kind of ‘want’ is expressed with 想, it might help to consider some of the other meanings of 想. Firstly, 想 can mean ‘to think’, either as ‘to believe’ or ‘to consider’. Have a look at some example sentences:

我想你没去过吧?

Wǒ xiǎng nǐ méi qùguò ba?

I think you haven't been before, right?

我想他应该不知道。

Wǒ xiǎng tā yīnggāi bù zhīdào.

I think he probably doesn't know.

我想错了。

Wǒ xiǎng cuòle.

I was mistaken. → What I thought was wrong.

你想多了!

Nǐ xiǎng duōle!

You thought too much! → You over-thought things, or presumed too much.

我想一想……

Wǒ xiǎng yī xiǎng……

Let me think....

You might be wondering why we’re giving you all these examples for a different meaning of 想 in an article about 想 meaning ‘want’. The reason is that by considering other meanings of 想 besides ‘want’, you can get a better sense of how exactly it means ‘want’. I.e., it’s a ‘want’ that’s got its roots in ‘to think about’ and ‘to consider’.

想 as ‘to think of’ and ‘to miss’

Finally, it’s worth looking at another meaning of 想. This is 想 as in 想念: ‘to think of’ or ‘to miss’. Hopefully you can see how these different meanings of 想 can all be linked together. You might be able to get a sense of some basic concept that lies behind all three meanings.

Have a look at some examples (cue sad violin music):

我想你。

Wǒ xiǎng nǐ.

I miss you.

我们都想你。

Wǒmen dōu xiǎng nǐ.

We're all thinking of you.

我很想念她。

Wǒ hěn xiǎngniàn tā.

I really miss her.

We mentioned above that if you use 想 directly with a noun, it means something a little different. The example sentences above demonstrate that. When used with a noun, 想 means ‘to miss’ or ‘to think of’, and not so much ‘to want’ (although you can see how the meanings are closely related).

要: to want, to be going to

Now we’re on to the second ‘want’ verb: 要. Let’s first look at using 要 as an auxiliary verb (i.e. when it’s followed by another verb) The main points to remember about 要 + verb are that it either:

  • Expresses ‘to want’ or ‘to need’ quite emphatically;
  • Expresses a definite intention;
  • Expresses a future action.

As you can see it’s stronger and much more direct than 想. Have a look at some examples:

我要去巴黎。

Wǒ yào qù Bālí.

I'm going to Paris. I want to go to Paris.

我要喝水。

Wǒ yào hē shuǐ.

I'm going to drink water. I want to drink water.

她要过来。

Tā yào guòlái.

She's going to come over here. She wants to come over here.

As you can see, 要 is pretty to-the-point. It would be wrong to think that 要 is actually ‘forceful’, though. It’s commonly used when ordering things, and isn’t necessarily impolite. To order something with 要, you might use it with a verb (as in 我要喝水, above), or with a noun:

我要一份扬州炒饭。

Wǒ yào yī fèn yángzhōu chǎofàn.

I'll have a portion of Yangzhou fried rice.

我要喝王老吉。

Wǒ yào wánglǎojí.

I'll have [Wanglaoji](http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%8E%8B%E8%80%81%E5%90%89%E6%B6%BC%E8%8C%B6 "王老吉凉茶 - a sugary drink that's a bit like coke").

Ordering in this way is neither polite nor impolite in itself; it’s just direct and matter-of-fact. You will often hear people order in this way, and no-one minds so long as they say it nicely.

It might be helpful to compare 要 to ‘will’ in English. Originally ‘will’ did mean ‘to want’, but it’s come to just express future actions or intentions. This is quite similar to how 要 is used in Chinese.

想要: to desire, to want

The verb 想要 is the trickiest of the three, because it has quite a broad range of intensity. It can range from expressing a simple want or request, to a strong desire for something, to sexual desire. Which one the speaker means will be clear in the context (hopefully!). 想要 is commonly used in standard requests for things (one context), but is also a common way to express sexual desire (a very different context).

Have a look at some examples:

我想要些苹果。

Wǒ xiǎng yào xiē píngguǒ.

I want some apples. [probably said at a shop]

我想要预约在今天下午5点。

Wǒ xiǎng yào yùyuē zài jīntiān xiàwǔ 5 diǎn.

I'd like to make an appointment for today at 5pm.

我想要看一看尼亚加拉瀑布。

Wǒ xiǎngyào kàn yī kàn Níyǎjiālā Pùbù.

I really want to see Niagara Falls.

我想要你。

Wǒ xiǎngyào nǐ.

I want you. [sexually]

我很想要。

Wǒ hěn xiǎngyào.

I'm really horny. I really want to.

As you can see, you’ve got to be pretty sure the context is clear when using 想要. Don’t be afraid of shopkeepers and receptionists misconstruing your requests, though - it’s perfectly clear in the context what you mean!

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