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Comparing "yao" and "xiang"

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Both 要 (yào) and 想 (xiǎng) can essentially mean "want," but they can also be used in quite different ways, such as 想 (xiǎng) also meaning "to miss" when followed by a noun, and 要 (yào) also meaning "going to (do something)."

Followed by a Noun

Both 要 (yào) and 想 (xiǎng) may be followed by nouns, but pay attention to how the meaning of 想 (xiǎng) totally changes when used this way.

要 (yào) as "to Want"

Structure

In this pattern, 要 (yào) is directly followed by a thing (a noun), rather than by a verb. It is often used to buy something, or to order food at a restaurant.

It may be helpful to imagine a demanding child using this pattern to get stuff from his parents. This "I want x!" pattern can seem slightly impolite, but to the Chinese ear it's not as inherently rude as it may seem when translated directly into English. Tone of voice plays a key role when using this pattern in spoken Chinese.

Subj. + 要 + Noun

Examples

  • 你 也 茶 吗?ordering in a restaurantNǐ yě yào chá ma? Do you also want tea?
  • 我们 都 咖啡。ordering in a cafeWǒmen dōu yào kāfēi.We all want coffee.
  • 大家 米饭?ordering in a restaurantDàjiā yàoyào mǐfàn? Does everyone want rice?
  • 你们 冰水 还是 热水?ordering in a restaurantNǐmen yào bīng shuǐ háishì rè shuǐ? Do you want ice water or hot water?
  • 谢谢,我 什么 都 不 ordering in a restaurantXièxiè, wǒ shénme dōu bù yào.Thank you. I don't need anything.

想 (xiǎng) as "to Miss"

Pay attention here: unlike "想 (xiǎng) + Verb," the meaning of 想 (xiǎng) in the "想 (xiǎng) + Noun" pattern becomes "to miss."

Structure

Subj. + 想 + Noun

Examples

  • 你。xiǎng nǐ.I miss you.
  • 我 有点 我 的 家人。Wǒ yǒudiǎn xiǎng wǒ de jiārén.I sort of miss my family.
  • 你们 回 美国 以后, 会 中国菜 吗?Nǐmen huí Měiguó yǐhòu, huì xiǎng Zhōngguó cài ma? Will you all miss Chinese food after you go back to the U.S.?
  • 你女朋友 不 在 的时候,你 会 她 吗?Nǐ nǚpéngyou bù zài de shíhou, nǐ huì xiǎng tā ma? Do you miss your girlfriend when she is not around?
  • 妈妈 打 电话 的 时候 跟 我 说, 她 很 我。Māma dǎ diànhuà de shíhou gēn wǒ shuō, tā hěn xiǎng wǒ.Mom called me and said she misses me a lot.

Followed by a Verb

要 (yào) and 想 (xiǎng) have similar meanings when followed by verbs. The difference is rather subtle, but 要 (yào) can sound more urgent or demanding (sometimes even childish), while 想 (xiǎng) is usually a bit more mature and polite. Tone of voice plays a big role here as well, though, so don't be afraid of offending people by using 要 (yào); the word itself isn't rude.

要 (yào) as "Want to"

Structure

It might help to think of 要 (yào) in this sense as meaning "want to" and 想 (xiǎng) as meaning "would like to."

Subj. + 要 + Verb

Examples

  • 休息 。yào xiūxi.I want to rest.
  • 你 也 回家 吗 ?Nǐ yě yào huíjiā ma? Do you also want to go home?
  • 你们 喝 什么 ?Nǐmen yào hē shénme? What do you want to drink?
  • 帮 老板 做 完 这些 工作 。yào bāng lǎobǎn zuò wán zhèxiē gōngzuò.I want to help the boss finish this work.
  • 大家 晚上 出去 吃 ?Dàjiā wǎnshang yào bu yào chūqù chī? Does everyone want to go out to eat tonight?

想 (xiǎng) as "Would Like to"

Structure

It might help to think of 想 (xiǎng) as meaning "would like to" instead of "want to." In English, as well, "would like to" feels more indirect, and thus less demanding and more more polite.

Subj. + 想 + Verb

Examples

  • 去 吗 ?xiǎng qù ma? Would you like to go?
  • 我 不 见 她 。Wǒ bù xiǎng jiàn tā.I wouldn't like to see her.
  • 周末 你们 看 电影 吗 ?Zhōumò nǐmen xiǎng kàn diànyǐng ma? Would you like to see a movie this weekend?
  • 请 你 吃饭 。xiǎng qǐng nǐ chīfàn.I'd like to treat you to dinner.
  • 他们 春节 不 回家 吗 ?Tāmen Chūnjié bù xiǎng huíjiā ma? Don't they want to go back home for Spring Festival?

要 (yào) as "Going to"

要 is used to indicate plans for the near future, much like "going to" in English. 想 (xiǎng) is not used in this way.

Structure

Subj. + 要 + Verb

Examples

  • 星期六 我 去 北京。Xīngqīliù wǒ yào qù Běijīng.I'm going to Beijing on Saturday.
  • 下 个 月 她 找 新 工作。Xià gè yuè tā yào zhǎo xīn gōngzuò.She is going to look for a new job next month.
  • 这个 周末 你们 出去 玩 吗?Zhège zhōumò nǐmen yào chūqù wán ma? Are you going out partying this weekend?
  • 结婚 以后,你 跟 父母 住 在 一起 吗?Jiéhūn yǐhòu, nǐ yào gēn nǐ fùmǔ zhù zài yīqǐ ma? Are you going to live together with your parents after you get married?
  • 生 完 孩子 以后,你 太太 回去 工作 吗?Shēng wán háizi yǐhòu, nǐ tàitai yào huíqù gōngzuò ma? Is your wife going back to work after she finishes giving birth to the baby?

想要 (xiǎngyào) as "Want"

Structure

You can put 要 (yào) and 想 (xiǎng) together to make the word 想要 (xiǎngyào), which means "to want." You can put either nouns or verbs after it.

Subj. + 想要 + Noun / Verb

Examples

  • 想要 几 个 孩子 ?xiǎngyào jǐ gè háizi? How many kids do you want to have?
  • 我 老婆 总是 想要 最 贵 的 包。Wǒ lǎopo zǒngshì xiǎngyào zuì guì de bāo.My wife always wants the most expensive bags.
  • 想要 找 一 个 有钱 的 男朋友 。xiǎngyào zhǎo yī gè yǒuqián de nánpéngyou.She wants to find a rich boyfriend.
  • 你们 为什么 想要 离开 北京 ?Nǐmen wèishénme xiǎngyào líkāi Běijīng? Why do you all want to leave Beijing?
  • 想要 帮 你 找 一 个 更好 的 工作。xiǎngyào bāng nǐ zhǎo yī gè gèng hǎo de gōngzuò.He wants to help you find a better job.

See also

Sources and further reading

Books