"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 ?

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/

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.

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.

This is in no way limited to British English. It is common in the United States as well. Extremely common.

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.

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.

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?

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’.


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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Belgian, but French is my mother tongue, indeed .

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.

I’ve heard this in the states before too. It’s just folksy talk.

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.

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.”

I’ve noticed it when applied to inanimate objects. “That lot wants sorting” meaning “you need to clean that up”.

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.”