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My instinct is that 我要明天看电视 is more likely to be understood as "I'm going to watch TV tomorrow", whereas 我明天要看电视 is more likely to be understood as "I want to watch TV tomorrow." Can a native speaker confirm or reject this idea?

I think it comes down the idea that Chinese tends to denote time by using a time phrase before a verb. So, if "要" comes first in the verb phrase, the listener is likely to interpret it as denoting something about time, specifically, future tense. Then, "明天" is likely to be understood as just more specification as to when in the future I am going to watch TV. Conversely, if "明天” comes before "要“, I would expect the listener to interpret "明天” as the time context, and 要 to take its more literal meaning of "want", yielding "tomorrow, I'll want to watch TV.", or "I want to watch TV tomorrow."

4 Answers 4

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我明天要看电视 I am going to watch tv tomorrow. A normal sentence express things that will happen in the future.

我要明天看电视 I want(prefer) to watch tv tomorrow. To emphasize the speaker's preference or will.

In Chinese, the normal order of a sentence is subject + time + place + do + something. If the order is different from this, there should be something special. Normally to emphasize something.

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我明天要看电视 = I will watch TV tomorrow. Here 要 is like the English will. It express the future tense with a slight hint of want to, but not quite. If stressing the personal will, we use want to instead. In Chinese, it look similar; in that case we say 我明天想要看电视.

What's really underlies 我要明天看电视 is the focal point. It stresses 明天. It is tomorrow that I want to watch IV. In this case, 要 is not as grammaticalized; it means want to.

To better understand the focus, we can put them in contrast.

  1. 我明天要看电视,不学习。 The contrastive focus is on 看电视 vs. 不学习.

  2. 我要明天看电视,不是今天。 The contrastive focus is on 明天 vs. 不是今天. 要 can be omitted. Adding a 要 stresses on my personal want. However, if we use 会 instead, 我会明天看电视, it's a bit unnatural. Want is the semantic that facilitate 要 to naturally stress what's come after, while 会 is similar to will and doesn't add much to the sentence. People will prefer 我明天看电视 for a simple future statement, or to stress on what time in the future but not on want, it's better to say 我会在明天看电视.

  3. 明天,我要看电视,他要踢足球。 The contrastive focus is on 我要看电视 vs. 他要踢足球. (In this case, 明天 can be analyzed as a topic. New info comes after the topic and is stressed. Same result.)

The order of 要 and 明天 cannot be switched in each of the three contrasting example. For example, 我要明天看电视,不学习 is incorrect.

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  • Brilliant! Thanks! I suppose that the same would hold for 会, such that 我会明天看电视would be more like "it is tomorrow that I will watch TV", and 我明天会看电视would be more like "tomorrow I will watch TV". Yes?
    – Buddy L
    Nov 9, 2022 at 18:39
  • Also, can you explain your last sentence "the position of 要and 明天 cannot be switched." please? It seems to contradict the rest of your answer.
    – Buddy L
    Nov 9, 2022 at 18:39
  • @BuddyL Sorry for the wording. I mean that the order of 要 and 明天 cannot be switched in each of the three contrasting example. For example, 我要明天看电视,不学习 is incorrect. The same goes for 会, but 我会明天看电视 sounds more unnatural. I'd adding some lines in my second contrast example.
    – lilysirius
    Nov 9, 2022 at 18:55
  • That makes more sense. Thanks!
    – Buddy L
    Nov 10, 2022 at 15:16
  • I voted up for this answer - it clearly explains the subtle difference between the two sentences, although I feel "我要明天看电视" is less common in terms of the particular context ("看电视").
    – elarry
    Nov 10, 2022 at 20:17
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Placing time adverbs after 要 like that doesn't sound right to my non-native ears. However, should you happen to or want to say it that way, the end result is indeed close to your translations, but not for the reason you think. It's the opposite, in fact.

It's true that time words are usually placed before the verb, but that doesn't imply that anything placed before the verb is a time word (it's a converse error for you to think otherwise). So, no, the meaning of 要 doesn't change. You'll just have to accept that its meaning is ambiguous in translation, sitting as it does between "want/would like to" and "intend/be going to".

You're right to think that word order makes a difference, but it does so from a syntactic point of view, not a morpho-semantic one. In other words, changing word order doesn't change the meaning of 要, but it does change its scope, from "watching TV" to "watching TV tomorrow".

So while 我明天要+看电视 tells us that tomorrow you will want to watch TV, 我要+明天看电视 tells us that what you want now is that TV-watching should happen tomorrow (as opposed to some other day).

要 coming first in 要明天 does not denote future tense; on the contrary, it denotes present tense about something happening tomorrow. Conversely, 要 in 明天要 does denote future tense because it's specifically framed/qualified as happening tomorrow.

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I would modify the sentences as below. The words in ( ) should be added to clarify your intent. Note the change in "tense" of each. Hope they make sense to you.

"我明天看(那個)电视(劇)“ - I am going to, watch that TV show tomorrow, or I wanted to watch that TV show tomorrow.

”我明天看(那個)电视(劇)“ - I want watch that TV show (until) tomorrow.

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