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I noticed many Chinese words have the same or similar meanings but they are not exchangeable. In many cases it is hard to decide which one to choose. Can anyone tell the subtle difference between 志愿, 意愿, and 心愿?

For example, I never heard anyone say "你的生日意愿是什么". Usually you heard "你的生日心愿是什么". But both 意愿 and 心愿 are "wish" in English.

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Consider, in English, a single word can have more than one meaning, and two different words may have a function overlapped.

For example:

  • 'Goal' can be replaced by 'wish' in some instances - e.g. "My Goal(wish) is to become a doctor"

  • 'Dream' can be replaced by 'wish' in some instances - e.g. " My Dream(wish) is to become a doctor"

  • 'Will' can be replaced by 'wish' in some instances - e.g. " To become a doctor is my will(wish)"

As for the difference between 志愿, 意愿 and 心愿

  • 志愿 mainly mean: Goal; Dream

  • 意愿 mainly mean: Will; Desire

  • 心愿 mainly mean: Desire; Wish

All three above can mean 'Wish'

我的志愿(愿望)是成为一名医生 - My goal (wish) is to become a doctor

我的意愿(愿望)是成为一名医生 - My will (wish) is to become a doctor

我的心愿(愿望)是成为一名医生 - My desire (wish) is to become a doctor

The important thing is, it all depends on the context.

The best term for "Wish" in "What is your birthday wish?" is '愿望' As in "你的生日愿望是什么"

Yes, 愿望 mainly mean 'wish' (n) but in some instances, you can translate it to 'desire, hope or dream'

Some more tips:

Use 志愿 if the wish is also an achievable goal (志 means goal, 志愿 = a wish you aim to achieve)

Use 意愿 if the wish is a determined one (意 means mind, 意愿 = a wish you have made up your mind to fulfill)

Use 心愿 if the wish is also a deep desire or a life long dream (心 means heart, 心愿 = a wish comes from your heart)

  • 谢谢。But I am not sure which one should be used in a particular context. Besides, I agree 心愿 and 愿望 are most likely exchangeable. But I think 愿望 and 意愿 are not exchangeable. 愿望 or 心愿 might turn true and might not. I have an impression 意愿 is stronger somehow. I heard a legal phrase 违背了当事人的意愿。 – cnwang09 Jan 13 '17 at 0:49
  • See my edited answer – Tang Ho Jan 13 '17 at 1:17
  • Thank you very much for your added explanation. Somehow I have an impression that in terms of determination 志愿 > 意愿 > 心愿 . Is that right? – cnwang09 Jan 14 '17 at 1:42
  • 心愿 is a deep desire that always in your heart; 志愿 is long term goal you want to reach; 意愿 is a choice you make at the moment. In my opinion, in term of determination, 心愿>志愿>意愿 because 心愿 never change until it is fulfilled or until you die. 志愿 is a long term goal but it may change over time when you realize achieving it is no longer possible. 意愿 is usually a short term goal, if it is not fulfilled, you usually move on to other things. – Tang Ho Jan 14 '17 at 4:11
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They all end up with the word 愿, meaning merely "wish", so we can try to focus on the first character.

is short for 志向, which is related to "job" and "direction", namely, what kind of JOB you would wish to accomplish, in addition to the implication that you are HEADING TO or will HEAD TO achieve it. Resolve is required if you use this.

Ex: 我的志愿是做医生。(Doctor is a JOB)

means "mind", namely, whether you are WILLING TO do A or do B,C,D,etc. You are confronted with finite choices if you are using 意愿. You would also use it when you want to say "I wish to do A INSTEAD OF B". Again, resolve is required if you use this.

Ex: 我的意愿是做医生。(Instead of a lawyer, etc.)

means "heart", and is simply talking about what you wish to happen. This one focuses on your FEELING or INCLINATION, so is usually translated "desire".

Ex: 我的心愿是做医生。-> I desire to be a doctor. (because sth touched my heart)

  • 谢谢。But 志愿 is not just about job or career. For example, 高考后考生填写志愿。 – cnwang09 Jan 13 '17 at 0:54

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