I have the following exercise in my schoolbook:

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As you can see, I had to match the phrases with the respective gaps.

My question is: Why can I not swap will and desire?

Here is my research (I used the Cambridge Dictionary):

Will - 1) what someone wants to happen 2) the mental power used to control and direct your thoughts and actions, or a determination to do something, despite any difficulties or opposition

Desire - a strong feeling that you want something

Having done this research, I don't see the difference between these two words and in which context each would be more appropriate.

  • 4
    Imagine there's a pretty girl over there. You have the desire to go talk to her, but not the will.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 25, 2018 at 13:18

3 Answers 3


There are many definitions for each, but generally the following I think is a half-decent explanation, even if a little simplistic.

Desire is something you want.

Will is something you have.

Desire means wanting a flashy car, or a juicy steak.

Will is the strength and condition you have to start something and follow it through, to take action. It's fitting that another word "willpower" has "will" in it, because in a way it's the strength in you to carry out your actions.

Will is your resolve. resolve
15. something determined or decided; resolution: he had made a resolve to work all day.
16. firmness of purpose; determination: nothing can break his resolve.
Collins Dictionary

So in your example sentences, (I know I'm simplifying) imagine:

"I always feel a desire/willpower to run away."
"I guess I just don't have the desire/willpower to win."

The strength of will to carry out one's decisions, wishes, or plans.

HotLicks' comment under your question probably sums it up best.



Old English will, willa "mind, determination, purpose; desire, wish, request (Etymonline)


(n.) c. 1300, from Old French desir, from desirer; sense of "lust" is first recorded mid-14c. (v) early 13c., from Old French desirrer (12c.) "wish, desire, long for," from Latin desiderare "long for, wish for; demand, expect," original sense perhaps "await what the stars will bring," from the phrase de sidere "from the stars," from sidus (genitive sideris) "heavenly body, star, constellation" (Etymonline)

There is a certain overlap with desire and will as to meaning. In practical use will means more determination than wish, and desire more wish than determination.

Desire might mean a passing fancy, but will might mean a long term fancy. Will might mean a set path, while desire would more often mean a short detour.

Often the older words in English take on a power the more recent acquisitions lack. So, words with similar meanings have different uses. See this previous question.


Will, generally, is the faculty of the mind that selects, at the moment of decision, a desire among the various desires present; it itself does not refer to any particular desire, but rather to the mechanism responsible for choosing from among one's desires.

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_(philosophy)

  • How the distinction between the two works in a philosophical context is very much theory-dependent; it is impossible to give useful definitions of these terms that would work across all philosophical theories that use them.
    – jsw29
    Apr 29, 2021 at 21:43

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