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Old 02-15-2019, 09:01 AM
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"Want to" Meaning "Need to/Have to" in British English ?


I lived in London in 1994-1995, and on the very first day I was there, I remember a man explaining to me how to get to a certain address and using "want to" in places where I would have used "need to" or "have to". For instance, he'd say things like "You want to take the Tube to King's Cross", "You want to change at Finsbury Park" or "You want to take the Circle Line, not the Northern Line". I'm sure he said "want" because it really struck me as weird at the time and he used it several times in a row.

The thing is, I don't think I've heard "want" used in that way since then. Is it typical of British (or "London") English ? Or was it peculiar to that person ?
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Last edited by Les Espaces Du Sommeil; 02-15-2019 at 09:02 AM.
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Old 02-15-2019, 09:35 AM
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No, it's a personal/family habit of speech, I think. I've never really thought about it, but I'm sure I've said it in that sense often enough.

I wouldn't overthink it, but it occurs to me that somehow there's an implied conditional - [If you want to get from here to there] you want to [whatever], or [If you're going out in this weather] you'll want your rainproof.

Or it might be a generational thing as well. Or it might be influenced by a hangover from one of the Celtic languages, for all I know. Perhaps it's related to the occasional use of "wanting" meaning "lacking".

Might be worth posing this question at https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/

Last edited by PatrickLondon; 02-15-2019 at 09:38 AM.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:01 AM
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I don't think of that phasing as weird. You want to go to X, therefore you want to take the turns necessary to do so. You don't need to take those turns, because you didn't need to get to X in the first place, you just wanted to go there.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:01 AM
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It's an accent/dialect. Probably pronounced 'wanna' as in "You wanna take a tube" etc. English people in England often don't speak very good English.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:02 AM
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This is in no way limited to British English. It is common in the United States as well. Extremely common.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:03 AM
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It's fairly common in California; I've probably used it myself.

'Want' once had 'lack' as its primary meaning. 'Will' once had 'desire' as its primary meaning. I think such auxiliary verbs shift meaning fairly easily.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:18 AM
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Originally Posted by septimus View Post
'Will' once had 'desire' as its primary meaning. I think such auxiliary verbs shift meaning fairly easily.
Indeed. Do people still make a distinction between " I shall drown, and no-one will save me", and "I will drown, and no-one shall save me"?

PS re another point above: "wanna" and "gonna" are 20th century imports from America, I think you'll find.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:19 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PatrickLondon
Might be worth posing this question at https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/
That site is dedicated to discussion of the differences between British and US English. The example in the OP is not unique to either country. The fact that the OP heard it in London, or that it was in 1994, is a red herring. This usage is neither chiefly UK, nor mid-90s slang. I am more surprised that the OP has never heard this anywhere else. Maybe the OP is French?

Last edited by Bear_Nenno; 02-15-2019 at 10:21 AM.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:34 AM
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Seems pretty normal to me - I did live in London for 20 years, so I don't know if it's used more there than in other locales.

I would take it mean, not 'you need to take this route', but rather 'this is the ideal route'.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:39 AM
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Originally Posted by septimus View Post
'Want' once had 'lack' as its primary meaning. 'Will' once had 'desire' as its primary meaning. I think such auxiliary verbs shift meaning fairly easily.
Yup.

My intuition for this sense of "want" is that it feels a little softer, perhaps more polite; in giving directions it sounds less like giving an order than saying "you need to" or "you must". But the ultimate meaning is precisely the same.

And (as a Brit living in the U.S.) I agree that it's not principally a transatlantic difference, although no doubt there are regional variations.

Last edited by Riemann; 02-15-2019 at 10:41 AM.
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Old 02-15-2019, 10:51 AM
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As a Californian, this usage sounds very typical to me. As PatrickLondon said, "if you want to get to King's Cross, you want to take the Tube."

I'm fairly certain I've used this construction myself in giving directions. I know I hear it all the time.
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Old 02-15-2019, 11:26 AM
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Originally Posted by Bear_Nenno View Post
This is in no way limited to British English. It is common in the United States as well. Extremely common.
Yeah, it doesn't sound weird to my Chicago-raised ears, either. Pretty sure I've even expressed it as "gonna wanna," as in "OK, so to get to Wrigley, you're gonna wanna get on Lake Shore Drive north and get off at Addison."
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Old 02-15-2019, 11:32 AM
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I've lived in the US Midwest my entire life and I've heard the construction the OP mentions numerous times, and I'm pretty sure I've used it myself. Doesn't sound at all odd to my ears.
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Old 02-15-2019, 11:49 AM
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Thanks for your answers. Ignorance fought.

I started wondering about it today because for, some reason, I have adopted the expression when speaking English, and someone (not a native speaker either) asked me why I didn't use "have to". So, I started worrying that I might have borrowed a mistake/personal quirk.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bear_Nenno View Post
That site is dedicated to discussion of the differences between British and US English. The example in the OP is not unique to either country. The fact that the OP heard it in London, or that it was in 1994, is a red herring. This usage is neither chiefly UK, nor mid-90s slang. I am more surprised that the OP has never heard this anywhere else. Maybe the OP is French?
Belgian, but French is my mother tongue, indeed .
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Mais je porte accroché au plus haut des entrailles
À la place où la foudre a frappé trop souvent
Un cœur où chaque mot a laissé son entaille
Et d’où ma vie s’égoutte au moindre mouvement
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Old 02-15-2019, 11:52 AM
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Tangentially related: a colleague once had a patron request directions to a nearby location. Immediately upon beginning to give her directions in what most people around here would consider perfectly polite and grammatical terms (e.g., "Turn right when you leave the building, go to the corner and turn left, etc."), said patron barked at said colleague, "DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO."

Left with no other immediately-obvious alternative, colleague printed out a map from Mapquest (this was a while ago) and drew the route with a highlighter. Much later, we considered the possibility that maybe the patron was one of those people who gave directions in the format described by the OP and considered anything else a gross imposition of the direction-giver's will upon her freedom.

Anyway, people be crazy.
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Old 02-15-2019, 11:55 AM
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I've heard this in the states before too. It's just folksy talk.
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Old 02-15-2019, 12:00 PM
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...Anyway, people be crazy.
Yeah, although I speculated that maybe it sounds a little softer (more "folksy" per Ashtura is another way of putting it) and less like giving an order, that certainly doesn't imply that it's remotely impolite to use the usual words like "need" or "must" in giving directions. This person was just crazy.

Last edited by Riemann; 02-15-2019 at 12:01 PM.
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Old 02-15-2019, 12:51 PM
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It's fairly common here, but it's not good grammar.

"You ought to take the Circle Line" would be better.

"I need to talk to you" sounds, to us, rather peremptory. I am tempted to answer, "No, you want to talk to me. Your needs and your wants are two different things."
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Old 02-15-2019, 12:56 PM
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I've noticed it when applied to inanimate objects. "That lot wants sorting" meaning "you need to clean that up".
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Old 02-15-2019, 01:19 PM
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I think something is missing here. The word "will" (or you'll). "If you want to get there, you will want to take the bridge."

Last edited by Jumpbass; 02-15-2019 at 01:21 PM. Reason: "cause I wanna
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Old 02-15-2019, 01:38 PM
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It's fairly common here, but it's not good grammar.
It’s perfectly good grammar. The most you might say is that it’s informal register. As septimus pointed out, the meaning of these auxiliary verbs drifts rather easily. Prescribing the distinction that you want to exist between “need” and “want” might be a valid subjective choice for a style guide, but it does not make this usage bad grammar.

Last edited by Riemann; 02-15-2019 at 01:39 PM.
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Old 02-15-2019, 02:22 PM
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I think it's more than a dialect. It's "politeness" or reluctance to issue commands, seen in some cultures. Like, when someone in Japan says "you might consider doing it this way," they are really telling you to do it that way.
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Old 02-15-2019, 07:22 PM
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I once made the mistake in translating the "need to, have to" sense, using "you want to..." into Spanish. My partner told me it isn't used that way in Spanish. Live and learn
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Old 02-16-2019, 05:15 AM
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And people wonder why translation algorithms get it wrong.
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Old 02-16-2019, 05:23 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Les Espaces Du Sommeil View Post
I remember a man explaining to me how to get to a certain address and using "want to" in places where I would have used "need to" or "have to".
It's not the same. You could just take a taxi. But the man was telling you the route you should prefer - with the Underground, there is often more than one way to get from A to B, especially within the Circle Line.
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Old 02-17-2019, 01:15 AM
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If a person with good local knowledge tells you that you want to take the Circle line rather than the Northern line, then that is the way you want to go. There are many journeys on the Underground with two or more possible routes that look roughly equivalent on the map, but they are often quite different in practice.

We seem to get more 'wants' as we go further north in the UK. 'The dog wants fed' = the dog is hungry. 'The car wants washed' = the car is dirty. 'The horseshoe wants a nail'= the horse's shoe lacks a nail. And so on.
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Old 02-17-2019, 02:33 AM
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Brit here and I'd say it's fairly common spoken English in the UK. I don't recall hearing it in dialects from the US, Australia etc so interesting to hear it is not just British slang.

In fact IME with foreign languages, it may not just be an English thing; eg in mandarin there are explicit words for "must" or "should" but in colloquial speech the same word as "want" is often used.
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Old 02-17-2019, 04:29 AM
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It's not too different from talking about inanimate objects as if they had feelings and desires. And genders. Very common in my neighborhood.

"She wants to pull left," said about a car.

"She likes to run hot," said about an engine.
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Old 02-17-2019, 09:07 AM
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Yeah , it's generally because they are phrasing it as a recommendation rather than an order.

It might be the only sensible recommendation, but they still aren't willing to give you an absolute, nor express the sense.of urgency that "need to" connotates.
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Old 02-17-2019, 11:04 AM
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WRT giving someone directions to reach a particular destination, one presumably is justified in assuming that the asker WANTS to arrive at the destination. In such cases, recommendations about which way to turn, when to change modes of transportation, etc., are quite properly stated in terms of "things [the traveler] wants to do."

On the subject of it being a Britishism, I am reminded of a time in the distant past when I read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the first time, and came to the Mad Tea Party scene. The Mad Hatter told Alice, "Your hair wants cutting." Even at the age of ten, I mentally put it down to "this is probably just the way English people talk," and moved on.

That said, it was only several years later that I learned what "treacle" was. I still don't think you can get it from the sides of a well.
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Old 02-17-2019, 04:09 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Riemann View Post
My intuition for this sense of "want" is that it feels a little softer, perhaps more polite; in giving directions it sounds less like giving an order than saying "you need to" or "you must".
Curiously, I have always gotten a more urgent tone from it, like it's hinting at a warning. Maybe because it implies an unspoken "You don't want to go that way; bad things will happen."



Now I, er, want to hear if people choose to use it in specific types of situations.



Anyway, Californian here, and it's not super-rare but still unusual as usage, in my experience. My mental picture of the speaker who uses it is of an older person.
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Old 02-17-2019, 04:16 PM
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... it occurs to me that somehow there's an implied conditional - [If you want to get from here to there] you want to [whatever], or [If you're going out in this weather] you'll want your rainproof.
I think this is exact reason. I've heard it quite often as well. It feels kinder and a bit more friendly. I hear an implied statement that there are other ways you could go or other things you could do, but I think this is the best one for you in these circumstances.
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Old 02-17-2019, 04:16 PM
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Originally Posted by kaylasdad99 View Post
WRT giving someone directions to reach a particular destination, one presumably is justified in assuming that the asker WANTS to arrive at the destination. In such cases, recommendations about which way to turn, when to change modes of transportation, etc., are quite properly stated in terms of "things [the traveler] wants to do."
I don't think this is correct. In general, you want an objective, and you are enquiring about what steps are necessary to achieve the objective.

For example:

If you want to go to London, you need to take either the M1 or the A1.

I have no implicit desire to be on either the A1 or M1, these are simply necessary steps that I must take in order to achieve what I want to do, which is to see Buckingham Palace.

So I don't think this explains the colloquial use of "want" in the sense under consideration (to mean "need").

Last edited by Riemann; 02-17-2019 at 04:19 PM.
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Old 02-17-2019, 07:11 PM
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I dobn't think this has anything to do with implicit desire. If I were to ask "How do you get to Paris?" in a context which did not suggest that I myself had or might ever have any desire to go to Paris, you could still perfectly properly use this form of words to reply.

It's "want" in the sense of lack or need. The "you" in the question "how do you get to Paris?" is the generic you; it doesn't refer to any individual. Rephrase the question without using the generic you, and it will have the form of "what is necessary to be done in order to get to Paris?" And the answer tells you what is needful, using "want" in that sense.
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Old 02-18-2019, 07:34 AM
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We seem to get more 'wants' as we go further north in the UK. 'The dog wants fed' = the dog is hungry. 'The car wants washed' = the car is dirty. 'The horseshoe wants a nail'= the horse's shoe lacks a nail. And so on.
I've lived in the north of England the majority of my life.
I only became aware of this despicable torture of the language about fifteen years ago and it does seem to be waning again now, fortunately.

A converse one seems to be creeping in currently - "Where's he at"? instead of "Where is he"? and variations on that theme.
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Old 02-18-2019, 08:30 AM
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I think this is exact reason. I've heard it quite often as well. It feels kinder and a bit more friendly. I hear an implied statement that there are other ways you could go or other things you could do, but I think this is the best one for you in these circumstances.
I, too, feel like the purpose of this structure is to soften the direct quality of giving commands, especially to a stranger. At least that’s how it comes off to me. Similar thing I’ve noticed is how some people (I most notice this from a UK friend who was raised in a posh part of London) use “I would have thought” in places where “I think” would be usual in my dialect. Yes, they do have slightly different meanings, but “I would have thought so” feels less definite, almost implying a “but now that you mention it, I’m not as sure” instead of the direct “I think so.” It’s not quite politeness in this case, but it does soften the strength of the speaker’s opinion.
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Old 02-18-2019, 08:46 AM
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That's very helpful, thanks.

I'll keep on using it, then. I like the "soften the direct quality of giving commands" aspect of the phrase.
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Mais je porte accroché au plus haut des entrailles
À la place où la foudre a frappé trop souvent
Un cœur où chaque mot a laissé son entaille
Et d’où ma vie s’égoutte au moindre mouvement
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Old 02-18-2019, 09:31 AM
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Well this is strange. I always had this down as a US thing!
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Old 02-18-2019, 09:44 AM
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Agree that it's common on both sides of the pond. In the West Country, you'll hear a variant form. "you're wanting x," with the word order sometimes reversed. As in:

"What's the best way to get to Truro?"
"You're wanting the train from Exeter"
Or, "It's the train from Exeter you're wanting."

Naturally, in this instance Exeter would be pronounced Aaaagzetter. And if anyone here needs to get from Exeter to Truro, it's the 4:21 from Exeter St. David's you'll be wanting, so you can avoid the commuter rush.

Last edited by Really Not All That Bright; 02-18-2019 at 09:45 AM.
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