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Here are two sentences that sort of mean the same thing, but need your help in identifying which one would be more appropriate.

I do already have an idea as to which phrase would be more appropriate but I still chose to go with the other one.

His mind pushed back, but he kept willing it to do all that it still could.

His mind pushed back, but he kept wanting it to do all that it still could.

Does using 'wanting' instead of 'willing' drastically change the meaning here?

Since will is more of a statement of commitment, 'willing' might seem more appropriate here. But in some cases using want in its place doesn't change the meaning.

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  • I think we need some more context. Is this some kind of parapsychological battle, or is this some more conventional scenario? Jul 21 at 12:58
  • So to elaborate, it's basically a situation where a person is trying to solve a puzzle that requires a lot of mental exertion. At one one point this person starts to feel mentally exhausted, but they keep pushing their mind to work on the problem. I hope this makes the context clear. Jul 21 at 13:05
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    You should really edit the question to include the context in it — it's not true that everybody here always reads the comments. And I'd use his mind rather than the mind — some languages, like French, prefer to use the definite article in these situations, but English strongly prefers the possessive. Jul 21 at 13:29
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    Since you use pushing, that meaning calls for "willing". "Wanting" is just a desire without that forced quality. Jul 21 at 13:29
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    @YosefBaskin thanks. 'without that forced quality' is a nice way to put it. 'Kept willing' does make things more specific. Jul 21 at 15:27

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If you want something to happen, you wish it would.

If you will something to happen, you try to 'make' it happen by your own mental efforts.

Will (verb). 1. Make or try to make (someone) do something or (something) happen by the exercise of mental powers. "reluctantly he willed himself to turn and go back" (Oxford Languages)

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    Thanks kate. This helps. So in a way it can be said that while both the sentences can get the idea across, the one that uses 'kept willing' is a little more specific. As yosef also pointed in his comment - 'wanting is a desire without that forced quality'. But people would still be able to understand the meaning behind the line even if I use 'kept wanting'. Right? Jul 21 at 15:23
  • Yes, of course, because, as I said, wanting it to... means wishing it would... Jul 21 at 16:35
  • No, @ShubhamKumar, I would not say that both sentences communicate the same idea. "Willing" in this context is active, whereas "wanting" is passive. They are related, but not interchangeable. I'm not sure which you actually intend, but one is not a good substitute for the other. In some other contexts, however, "will" and "want" are closer to each other. Jul 21 at 21:17
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Will already means want in English. That's the deontic sense of will; its epistemic sense of 'expected future' is what's often called "the future tense". But like all modal auxiliary verbs, will has several senses. The deontic sense of will as 'want to, be willing to' can be found in if-clauses, where the epistemic sense of will is not allowed, but the deontic is OK:

  • *If he will come today, it's OK (ungrammatical epistemic: should use comes)
  • If he'll sign the documents, it's OK (grammatical deontic = 'if he is willing to sign')

In German, where modal auxiliaries are inflected and have infinitives and participles, they are not used to represent the future like will is. German uses the verb werden 'become' for its future construction. The German modal auxiliary that's cognate to English will (both come from the same prehistoric root) is wollen, which simply means 'want'. So Ich will gehen doesn't mean 'I will go' but rather 'I wanna go'; the way you'd say 'I will go' is Ich werde gehen.

There is also a verb will which refers to magical, theological, political, or mystical results achieved by mental (or magical, theological, political, or mystical) means. You see this in the reports of the First Crusade in 1096 CE, with the slogan Deus le veult, or 'God wills it'. The present participle of this inflected verb will, willing, is often used in constructions like be willing to VP referring to potential agreement.

So, to answer the question, there are some occasions where will and want can both occur in the same place without much difference in meaning. But not usually, because they're different types of verbs and follow different grammar rules -- the modal will hasta be followed by an infinitive, for instance, but the verb want doesn't; and want has tensed and participial verb forms, whereas will doesn't.

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    Causative 'will' corresponds to the idea of mind-over-matter in the 'super/supranatural control' sense ('willed him to miss the penalty'). But 'be willing to' involves self control, whether at the keen-to-comply or acquiescent level. Can inflectable 'will [[to]' also be classed separately with the additional 'desire strongly [to]' sense? Jul 22 at 11:38

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