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Auxiliary verb "yao" and its multiple meanings

You probably already know the basic meaning of 要 (yào) as "to want." It is actually a quite versatile word, though, and can also take on the meanings of "to need" as well as "will (do something)." In every case, context is crucial for figuring out which meaning someone is trying to express.

要 as "want"

This structure could be used when ordering food at a restaurant or a shop. Here, it's being used for saying that you want something.

Structure

Subj. + 要 + Noun

Examples

  • 什么?yào shénme? What do you want?
  • 一 杯 水。yào yī bēi shuǐ. I want a cup of water.
  • 你们 都 冰 可乐 吗?Nǐmen dōu yào bīng kělè ma? Do you all want coke with ice?
  • 茶 还是 咖啡?yào chá háishì kāfēi? Do you want tea or coffee?
  • 我们 三 碗 米饭。Wǒmen yào sānwǎn mǐfàn. We want three bowls of rice.

要 as "want to"

In Chinese, 要 (yào) can mean "want to" (similar to (xiǎng)), but its tone is quite firm. So it's used for saying that you want to do something.

Structure

Subj. + 要 + Verb

Examples

  • 喝 什么 酒?yào hē shénme jiǔ? What kind of wine do you want?
  • 爸爸 买 一 个 新 手机。Bàba yào mǎi yī gè xīn shǒujī. Dad wants to buy a new cellphone.
  • 跟 你 一起 去。yào gēn nǐ yīqǐ qù. I want to go with you.
  • 去 大城市 找 工作。yào qù dà chéngshì zhǎo gōngzuò. She wants to go to a big city to find a job.
  • 周末 你们 一起 看 电影 吗?Zhōumò nǐmen yào yīqǐ kàn diànyǐng ma? Do you want to go to the movie together?

要 as "need to"

If you crank the urgency of "to want" up a few notches, you get "to need." The two meanings overlap, creating a fuzzy, "needy" gray area.

Structure

Subj. + 要 + Verb

Examples

  • 早点 睡觉。yào zǎodiǎn shuìjiào. You need to go to bed earlier.
  • 我们 明天 上班。(logically, most people don't really WANT to work)Wǒmen míngtiān yào shàngbān. We need to work tomorrow.
  • 老板 今天 见 一个 新 客户。Lǎobǎn jīntiān yào jiàn yīgè xīn kèhù. Today the boss needs to see a new client.
  • 老师 太 累 了, 好好 休息。Lǎoshī tài lèi le, yào hǎohao xiūxi. The teacher is too tired. She needs to have some good rest.
  • 明天 下雨, 你 带 伞。Míngtiān xiàyǔ, nǐ yào dài sǎn. It will rain tomorrow, you need to bring an umbrella.

要 as "going to"

This use of 要 (yào) is like "going to" (similar to (huì)).

Structure

Again, no change to the structure here, but it often includes a mention of a time when something is going to happen.

Subj. + 要 + Verb

If you want to know more about the related pattern "要...了" (yào... le), please see about to happen with "kuai... le".

Examples

  • 星期五 我们 开会。Xīngqīwǔ wǒmen yào kāihuì. We are going to have a meeting on Friday.
  • 12点 我 去 吃饭。Shí'èr diǎn wǒ yào qù chīfàn. I am going to go out and eat at 12 o'clock.
  • 老板 下周 出差 吗?Lǎobǎn xiàzhōu yào chūchāi ma? Is the boss going on a business trip next week?
  • 他们 明年 结婚 了。 Tāmen míngnián yào jiéhūn le. They are going to get married next year.
  • 今年 你 回家 过年 吗?Jīnnián nǐ yào huíjiā guònián ma? This year are you going back home to spent the Chinese New Year?

Context, context, context

You may have noticed that the meanings can easily overlap. To figure out what is intended, you need to use context. How urgent is the situation? Is it likely to be something the speaker really wants to do? Is it something that's totally going to happen, regardless of anyone's preferences? Most often, a little background knowledge and some common sense are all you need to figure it out. With that said, you definitely need to be aware of the different possible meanings listed above.

See also

Sources and further reading

Books