English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

“Want” adds

Q: Why do we say or write things like “I want to thank you for your wonderful lecture the other night” or “I wanted to let you know that the blouse you like is in stock again”? I find myself doing it when I’m in a business situation. What’s with this “want” business?

A: In our opinion, starting a statement like that with “I want to …” (or the even more deferential “I just want to …”) is an example of tentativeness or excessive politeness.

We’ve written on our blog about a similar mannerism, the use of “I would like …” (or “I’d like …”) instead of “I want ….”

As we said in that May 18, 2009, post, people tell a waiter “I would like the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts” because it sounds more indirect, hence more polite and less demanding, than “I want the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts.”

Some grammarians use the term “tentative volition” to describe this less demanding way of demanding something.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses the use of “would” in a sentence like “I would like to see him tomorrow” (vs. “I want to see him tomorrow”).

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say that “would” often “introduces a rather vague element of tentativeness, diffidence, extra politeness, or the like.”

Huddleston and Pullum go on to describe “would like” as “more or less a fixed phrase, contrasting as a whole with want.”

We think people insert things like “I wanted to …” and “I’d like to …” in sentences when they’re nervous, overly deferential, addressing someone of importance (such as a valued customer), or unsure of their own authority.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong in all this. It’s more of a psycholinguistic issue.

Etymologically, to “want” something is to lack it, the meaning of the word when it entered English in the early 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The sense of desiring something “is a secondary extension” of the original meaning, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

English adapted “want” from the Old Norse vanta (to be lacking), but Ayto says the ultimate source is the prehistoric Germanic root wan- (lacking), which is also the source of the English word “wane.”

The adjective “wanton” is another relative. As Ayto explains: “Someone who is wanton is etymologically ‘lacking in proper upbringing or discipline.’ ”

Check out our books about the English language