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I often find people (mostly American people) telling to me "you will want to do this" or "you will not want to do this". Does it mean they are telling me that I should do something (in the sense of being authoritative) or are they just requesting that I do something?

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Excellent question; this idiom fascinates me too. In instructional contexts I often hear the extremely verbose, "Now, what you're going to want to do here is you're going to want to X." Which is just a wordy way of saying "X". –  tenfour Aug 7 '12 at 10:38
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@tenfour: If you're hearing statements that are that verbose, you must be hanging out with Java programmers. Other folks would just say, "What you want to do here is X." –  Robusto Aug 7 '12 at 15:32
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Isn't this English.SE? –  hydroparadise Aug 7 '12 at 17:13
    
What you're gonna wanna do is you're not gonna wanna let people suspect you're just buying time while you think of what to say next. ;) –  Henrik Erlandsson Jun 8 '13 at 16:47
    
I think I've only ever heard the "you will" contracted to "you'll" in this construction. I actually find the full version jarring. Is it used? –  user18036 Sep 19 '13 at 13:55

7 Answers 7

up vote 84 down vote accepted

It literally is a prediction of a future condition. It's often used as a way of sharing your experiences with the hope of those experiences helping someone else. It can be a way of insinuating commands or requests, but only as a turn of phrase.

For example, a person who just got out of the rain might tell someone about to leave that "You will want to have an umbrella." If a road is blocked, they might say "You will want to drive this other route."

By alerting someone to a future condition, you help them make informed decisions without stepping on their toes.

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+1 - This is the most correct answer IMO. Note that the phrase is also used to mean you will wish you had, as in "You will want to fasten your seatbelt on the roller coaster". At no point may you be actually thinking to yourself, "gosh, I really feel like fastening a seatbelt now!", but it is quite likely you might think, "Oh no, oh no, I don't have my seatbelt on and I'm upside-down! I wish I had fastened my seatbelt!" –  Rex Kerr Aug 7 '12 at 16:38
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+1 for the mental image of realizing your seatbelt isn't fastened at the top of a loop. :\ –  rsegal Aug 7 '12 at 16:40
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I don't agree your repeated emphasis on "future conditions". As many of these instances of "now you'll want to" surely illustrate, the "future" verb form is commonly used when speaking of a current condition. –  FumbleFingers Aug 7 '12 at 18:00
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Even those are in the future from the author's perspective, saying that at the time of reading, the reader will have certain thoughts or inclinations. Further, the expression "Now, you will want ____" is an entirely different one, used to preface an idea or decision that seems good or desirable, but should be avoided despite that. For example: "Now, you'll want to not waste time looking for an umbrella, but you'd be upset when you got soaked in the rain." –  rsegal Aug 7 '12 at 18:07
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@FumbleFingers You will want to is not the same as **Now** you will want to You've added a word which changes the meaning, and no where did the OP include now in his question. –  Andy Aug 7 '12 at 18:27

“You will want to do X” is simply an informal yet animated way of saying, “I highly recommend trying X.” It's usually meant to be friendly, more so than authoritative; the speaker is sharing heartfelt enthusiasm, often based on personal experience. For example:

You will so want to stay active on EL&U! They've got some great people there, and you can learn a lot.

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I agree that it is friendly, but disagree that it is never authoritative. It's not "highly recommend trying this" so much as "you should do this." I hear it often in the context of imparting expertise in a friendly and modest way. So what you'll want to do is edit your answer to expand on that example a little. ;-) –  KitFox Aug 7 '12 at 10:59
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@KitFox: No need to expand too much, since you've already brought up the point. It's a bit hard to distinguish between "I highly recommend" and "you should" - more often than not, I'm recommending something because you should do it. "You will want to bring a map with you to the park." Is that advice, or a recommendation? The voice of experience whispering in your ear? The line is blurry; thanks for improving my answer by pointing out there are other nuances of how this expression is used. –  J.R. Aug 7 '12 at 11:07

In "American" it's basically saying: In my opinion this is the best course of action for you, you don't have to follow it, but if you fail I can say "I told you so"

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It can be perceived as a way of giving advice, a way of trying to persuade someone of something, or simply as it is. "You will want to do this" could mean that the person saying it wants you to do this, believes that this is something you should do, or believes that, if you don't now, you will later want to do this.

The other side of all this is that if someone says "You don't want to do this" it means that either the person doesn't want you to do this, that the person believes that this is something you shouldn't do, or believes that this is something you will regret doing later.

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Nathan, I fixed a spelling but didn't touch all those instances of <i>...</i>. Note that *...* works as well; see markdown help page. –  jwpat7 Aug 7 '12 at 16:32

Personally I find this phrase gets my back up, and thankfully I don't hear it much. It's purpose is to say at some future point you will agree with someones point of view, instead of letting the person in question room to make their own conclusion in their own time, and adjust their position.

The social norm would be to agree with the answer, alternatively try answering this question with a plaintive non-committal answer, like "okay, we'll see", and sometimes you may get the following response "No, you will!". Things could then become a bit confrontational, for a simple question like "Do you want Parsley on your soup?".

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"After the first day of boot camp, you will want to quit the army." It is not a question so there is no need for an any sort of answer. If you believe the speaker, then logically you will not sign any enlistement papers. If you don't believe the speaker, then you will have plenty of room to make your own conclusion (on the army's time). –  emory Aug 8 '12 at 17:33

I'm not sure why OP says this colloquial use of "want" is "mostly American" - my understanding is it's primarily a British thing. Here's UK comedian Harry Enfield with his "Mr. Don't Wanna Do That" stock character.

I don't think there's any meaningful difference between present (don't=do not) and future (won't=will not) tense in this context, but feasibly some might feel that future tense is more "distant/oblique/deferential".

It's possible using "want" rather than "should/need" is partly motivated by a desire on the part of the speaker to downplay the advice/instruction overtones - but as that Harry Enfield skit humorously shows, patronising advice is patronising advice, whatever language you couch it in.

My own feeling is the usage is unremarkable in contexts where the speaker is recognised as an "authority" (in the sense of being expert, not dominant). Focussing on what the "trainee" wants to do, rather than what he should do, is simply a device to engage and motivate him.

So to answer OP's specific question, it's neither an "authoritative command" nor a "request" - it's patronising advice (don't say it to your boss at work, for example!).

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While it certainly can be used for patronizing advice, in America it does not automatically have that connotation. Quite the contrary, it can often be seen as a kinder, gentler or even deferential command. For instance, when speaking to my boss at work, I may well say, "OK, now you'll want to click on this file" rather than the commanding: "OK, now, click on this file." –  lindanaughton Aug 7 '12 at 16:43
    
@Lynn: If that's what you say, I can hardly disagree with you. Personally, I'd use need rather than want in your "advising the boss" context. Either American usage is different, or you have quite a cosy relationship with your boss (whereby you're allowed to dictate to him what he will or won't "want" to do). –  FumbleFingers Aug 7 '12 at 16:59
    
One of the things about Enfield's character, is that he does so after the fact. He would never say, "you'll want to read the instructions first" (which is advice), he'd say, "you put that up without reading the manual, you did not want to do that, no, you wanted to be informed before you started making it, didn't you?" Which is pretty different in nuance :) –  Jon Hanna Aug 7 '12 at 19:59
    
@Jon Hanna: I only mentioned Enfield's character to show that this use of want instead of should/need is at the very least well-known to Brits (I would say, considered typically British). On the matter of present/future tense, I stand by my assertion that (certainly in British speech) they're effectively interchangeable in this particular context. I'm well aware that the runaway top answer here dwells on the significance of future tense referring to a future (not present) "want", but where I come from that simply isn't true. –  FumbleFingers Aug 7 '12 at 20:26
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Better yet, I think it is an Anglo-Commonwealth/American expression. –  BillR Aug 8 '12 at 4:02

They mean "the best course of action is to do..." or "what you should do is..."

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