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Saturday, 29 October 2011

Stuart's Daily Word Spot: Need or want?

PovertyImage via Wikipedia
Need or want?
Need: noun - necessity for a person or thing; a condition or time of difficulty, distress, or trouble, lacking or requiring some necessary thing; exigency, emergency, crisis; destitution, lack of the means of subsistence or of necessaries, poverty; requiring or being motivated to do, a necessity to do; something requiring action; a particular point or respect in which some necessity or want is present or is felt; a piece of necessary business; something wanted, a requirement.

Want: noun - lacking something desirable or necessary; deficiency or shortage; lacking the necessities of life; penury; poverty, famine, starvation; hardship or suffering; a condition marked by the lack of some necessity; need; something needed or desired; a requirement, a request; a defect, fault or shortcoming.

When I decided to compare these two words, in common with many older folk, I assumed their dictionary definitions would support my preconceptions. However, the good old SOED has educated me once again. On the face of it, the two words can be interchanged more or less unconditionally.
BUT, when it comes to that oft heard phrase, 'I need…' usually uttered by an offspring, there is a distinction that should be made, I think.

Children of all ages, and I include those adults who refuse to mature, often state that they need something when they simply desire it. Usage suggests that, in most cases, they 'want' what they call a 'need'. I think I can best express this by explaining that in this particular case, 'want' indicates desire and 'need' indicates necessity.
So:
'I need a new dress, skirt, etc.' should properly be expressed as 'I want a new…' since the item in question is not a necessity but something desired.

'I need a text book, set of pens, breakfast, etc.' is fine, as these are necessities for either life or schooling.

The dividing line is fine and, probably, subjective, but I think all parents will know where it should be drawn.

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