31 Needs, Wishes and Intentions

Let’s now see how to say I want to sleep or Ana intends to go to Zagreb.

Such expressions are very simple in Croatian. You should use one of verbs of desire and intent:

morati must
namjeravati («) intend
planirati («) plan

pokušavati («) try
trebati need/should
željeti (želi, želio, željela) wish

(Recall that the symbol « means stress shift one syllable left in the present tense, when using the Standard stress scheme.)

For example if you wish/must/intend to eat an apple, you should simply say:

Želim jesti jabuku. I want to eat an apple. ®

Moram jesti jabuku. I must eat an apple.

Namjeravam jesti jabuku. I intend to eat an apple.

What you want/intend to eat is still in the accusative case: only the wished/intended action is expressed in the infinitive form®. Since the infinitive form is the form listed in dictionaries, that’s not complicated at all.

There’s nothing special about the past tense, just use the verb in the past instead of present:

Željela sam jesti jabuku. I wanted to eat an apple. (I = female)

Morao sam jesti jabuku. I had to eat an apple. (I = male)

In the Standard Croatian, the infinitive always ends in -i. Colloquially, the final -i of infinitives is very often left out, even in writing:

Želim jest jabuku. (colloq.)

Moram pit vodu. (colloq.)

Please pay attention how the English verb must behaves a bit differently than the other two – it does not use to. English has a special group of modal verbs that have specific behavior – for example, it’s not he musts, but he must. Croatian has no special modal verbs, the verbs above are like any others, except they permit another verb in the infinitive as their ‘object’.

English distinguishes obligations (a) from conclusions about the past (b) by using two different constructions:

(a) She had to sleep. (obligation)

(b) She must have been sleeping. (conclusion)

The sentence (b) is simply a conclusion about what has probably happened. Croatian doesn’t distinguish between these two meanings, and uses morati for both:

Morala je spavati. (a) or (b)

However, there are a couple of ways to express exactly (b): one of them is by using sigurno or another adverb of probability:

Sigurno je spavala. She was sleeping for sure. = (b)

The verb trebati with another verb in inf corresponds to English should; for example: ®

Ana treba spavati. Ana should sleep.

Verbs trebati need/should and željeti (želi,...) wish can be used simply with standard objects, if you just wish or need something:

Ana treba kavu. Ana needs coffee.

Želim pizzu. I want pizza.

Therefore, when trebati is used with an object, it corresponds to English need, and when it’s used with another verb in infinitive ®, it’s like English should.

There are two verbs that are not listed above, since they are irregular and need an additional explanation. They are:

verb pres-3 pres-1 pres-1pl pres-3pl
htjeti want hoće hoću hoćemo hoće
moći can može mogu možemo mogu

The only surprising forms in present of these two verbs are pres-1 and pres-3pl (check how their pres-1pl is completely expected, given the pres-3). It ends in -u for both verbs, but the form is also otherwise irregular and must be remembered. However, the pres-1 form of the verb moći can keeps its stress after the negation, while all other forms – including the pres-3pl – shift the stress to negation in the Standard scheme. (I’ve warned you that the Standard scheme is really complex, even after I have watered it down!)

In some regions, in colloquial speech, present forms of htjeti are without the initial h-, that is, oću, oćeš, etc. You will see it from time to time in casual writing and popular songs.

Their past forms are:

htjetihtio, htjela
moćimogao, mogla

(You’ll also occasionally see past-m htjeo.) ®

Both verbs are used like the others listed above:

Hoću jesti jabuku. I want to eat an apple.

Mogu jesti jabuku. I can eat an apple.

Možemo spavati. We can sleep.

Mogla sam jesti jabuku. I could eat an apple. (I=female)

However, the verb htjeti is considered a bit rude and impolite; željeti is a better choice.

The verb moći is equivalent to both English can and may in everyday use. If you would give someone a permission to do something, you would use moći.

Warning. In English, can has almost empty meaning with some verbs, like see, hear, feel, taste (generally, ‘sense’ verbs):

I can see you. = I see you.

Croatian never uses moći in this way, for something really happening. If you play hide and seek and see someone, you would say only:

Vidim te! I see you! = I can see you!

Colloquially, its pres-3 form može means something like ‘OK’; conversations like this one are very common:

Može čaj? (colloq.) Want some tea? (lit. ‘Is tea OK?’)

— Može. (colloq.) Yes. (lit. ‘OK.’)

You can hear it in shops, cafes, at home, everywhere. Pay attention that the word after može is in nominative:

Može kava? (colloq.) Want some coffee?

If you want to express that you don’t want to eat an apple, just use a normal negation, except for the verb htjeti want that has special negated present forms where ho- is replaced with ne- (it’s similar to the verb imati have):

Neću jesti jabuku. I don’t want to eat an apple.

(You’ll occasionally see negative present forms of htjeti want spelled as separate words, e.g. ne ću.)

There’s another useful verb that’s often used negated:

smjeti (smije, smio, smjela) is allowed to

This verb corresponds to English may, and like it, it’s not really used in speech. However, it is used in Croatian in negative sentences. This is how it and the other verbs work when negated:

Ne želim jesti jabuku. I don’t want to eat an apple.

Ne moram jesti jabuku. I don’t have to eat an apple.

Ne mogu jesti jabuku. I cannot eat an apple.

Ne smijem jesti jabuku. I’m not allowed to eat an apple.

Pay attention that ne¨ + morati does not mean "must not" but "don’t have to". If you know some German, you’ll immediately see that it’s similar to German müssen. This table summarizes various possibilities:

have to
I must eat.
I have to eat.
Moram jesti.
I should eat.
Trebam jesti. ®
must not
should not
ne + smjeti
I must not eat.
I should not eat.
Ne smijem jesti.
don’t have to
ne + morati
I don’t have to eat.
Ne moram jesti.

There are more similarities with German. If you use the verbs above + ići go + destination, in the spoken language, you can leave the infinitive ići out:

Moram ići na sastanak. I have to go to a meeting.

Moram na sastanak. (the same meaning, a bit colloquial)

There’s another verb that similar to pokušavati («) try:

probati inf/A try

The difference is that this verb basically means try something, e.g. try a shirt on, taste food, while its use with infinitives is a bit colloquial:

Ana je probala hlače. Ana tried the trousers on.

Goran je probao kolač. Goran tasted the cake.

However, the verb probati try is a bit specific: it’s normally not used in the present tense – especially describing ongoing events – since it belongs to the group of so-called perfective verbs, with restrictions on use (they will be explained in detail a bit later).

On the other hand, pokušavati («) cannot be used with objects in A at all – with a partial exception of pronouns like to.

This table summarizes which verbs can be used with what objects:

+ inf + A / inf
moći (...) can
morati must
namjeravati («) intend
pokušavati («) try
smjeti (...) may
htjeti (...) want
planirati («) plan
probati perf. try
trebati need/should
željeti (...) wish

Now, it is possible to replace infinitives (and other things attached to them) with the general pronoun to, to refer to something previously said or known, so the pronoun to can be used, and is frequently used with verbs in the left column as well:

Ne mogu to. I can’t do that.

However, it’s common to use the verb raditi besides to, in its generic sense (do):

Ne mogu to raditi. (the same meaning)

The verb trebati is often used impersonally, when used with another verb in inf. It corresponds to using English generic words like one and men/people:

Treba° jesti zdravo. One should eat healthy.

Of course, as with all impersonal expressions, the verb will be in neuter singular in the past: trebalo je...

What about intending/having to do something that in Croatian must use a verb with a se²? You still must use the se², and place it at the second place in the sentence:

Goran se želi igrati. Goran wants to play.

Moram se brijati. I have to shave.

There’s nothing special about questions – these verbs behave like any other verb, for instance:

Hoćeš li gledati film? Do you want to watch the movie?

Što želiš jesti? What do you want to eat?

— Pizzu. A pizza.

You can ask about desired actions using što – and answer with verbs in inf (+ objects, if needed):

Što želiš? What do you want?

— Jesti pizzu. ‘Eat pizza.’

If you want to stress that the question is about an action, not a desired object, use the verb raditi work/do:

Što želiš raditi? What do you want to do?

— Igrati se. ‘Play.’

There’s one more possibility to express wishes and intentions, using nouns. The common nouns used for this purpose are:

namjera intention
obaveza obligation
plan plan

potreba need
pravo right
želja wish

They are used as verbs above, what you wish/intend/need is expressed with a verb in infinitive following the noun:

Ana ima potrebu spavati. Ana has a need to sleep.

If the verb in infinitive has a se², it usually follows the verb, but can be also placed elsewhere, usual placement rules don’t hold:

Goran ima namjeru igrati se.Goran has an intention to play.

This way of expressing needs and intentions is seen more often in formal communication, and sometimes in speech when you want to say something expressive.

® In Serbia, infinitives are less often used: in speech, the form da + present prevails. For instance, the first sentence in Serbia would rather be Želim da jedem jabuku.

Furthermore, Standard Serbian insists that the verb trebati cannot be used personally at all with another verb, so instead of e.g. Trebam jesti jabuke, the only standard option is:

Treba da jedem jabuke.

The past-m form htjeo is frequent in Bosnia.

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5 Easy Croatian: 31 Needs, Wishes and Intentions Let’s now see how to say I want to sleep or Ana intends to go to Zagreb . Such expressions are very simple in Croatian. You should use on...

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