Difference between 想 and 要 | 2 Chinese Verbs “To Want”

想 (xiǎng) and 要 (yào)

This post continues exploring the differences between Chinese modal verbs. Our learners have also noticed that modal verbs 想 (xiǎng) and 要 (yào) share the same meaning – they all can be translated as “to want”. However, they are actually slightly different from each other depending on the context.

Take a look at the examples below to understand the difference.


1. 想 (xiǎng)

想 (xiǎng) + verb = want to (do sth.)

想 (xiǎng) means “want” only when it is followed by a verb, which indicates a person’s desire to do something.


(Wǒ xiǎng hē kāfēi.)
I want to drink coffee.


喝 (hē); to drink
咖啡 (kāfēi): coffee

想 (xiǎng) + noun = to miss (sth./sb.)

When 想 (xiǎng) is followed by a noun, it has a completely different meaning, which is “to miss something or someone”.


(Wǒ xiǎng wǒ de péngyou.)
I miss my friend(s).


2. 要 (yào)

要 (yào) + noun/verb = to want (sth.) / to want to do (sth.)

要(yào) means “want” when it’s followed by a noun or a verb.


(Wǒ yào shuǐ.)
I want some water.


水(shuǐ): water

However, in addition to a person’s desire to do something, 要 (yào) could also mean “necessary to do something”, which is usually translated as “need something” or “need to do something” in this case. The original word for “need” in Chinese is 需要 (xūyào).


(Wǒ xiànzài yào qù xuéxiào.)
I need to go to school now.


现在 (xiànzài): now
学校 (xuéxiào): school

要(yào) can be replaced with 需要 (xūyào) in this sentence.


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