38 Needs, Wishes and Intentions

  You can also read this chapter in French.


Let’s now see how to say I want to sleep or Ana intends to go to Zagreb. Such expressions are quite simple in Croatian. You should use one of verbs of desire and intent:

morati must
namjeravati («) intend
planirati («) plan
trebati need/should
željeti (želi, želio, željela) wish

All these verbs are imperfective. (You’ll see later there are a few weird perfective verbs related to some of the verbs above, but they don’t stand for completion.) 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.

Colloquially, there’s another verb that’s often used to express intentions:

misliti (+ inf) (colloq.!) intend

This verb literally means think, but with infinitives, it can be used like this:

Mislimo ići na plažu.  ▶  (colloq.!) We intend to go to the beach.

There’s nothing special about the past tense, just use the verb in the past instead of present, the other verb stays in inf. These are examples for a process verb:

Željela sam jesti jabuku. I wanted to eat an apple. (some of it) {f}

Morao sam jesti jabuku. I had to eat an apple. (some of it) {m}

Now, if you intend to complete something, you should use completion verbs in inf:

Želim pojesti jabuku. I want to eat an apple. (the whole apple)

Želim pročitati knjigu.  ▶  I want to read the book. (the whole book)

Želim pročitati prvo poglavlje. I want to read the first chapter. (the whole chapter)

Of course, if you don’t intend to read the whole book, or any defined part of it (like, a chapter) but just engage in that activity, use process verbs:

Želim čitati knjigu.  ▶  I want to read the book. (a bit of it)

Therefore, use of perfective or imperfective verbs makes such statements much more precise in Croatian.

We can finally say one of the most horrible sentences for many kids in Croatia:

Moraš pojesti kelj. You have to eat the cabbage. (all of it)

What’s so horrible with this sentence? It uses the completion verb pojesti (pojede, pojeo) eat. Completion verbs are specific about objects. And the object in the sentence above is a plate of Savoy cabbage, a common ‘healthy’ food, right in front of the child. Completion verbs mean there’s nothing left to do. The plate must be emptied. There’s no way around it!

For comparison, the following sentence with a process verb is much more benign:

Moraš jesti kelj. You have to eat cabbage.

It’s not about anything specific, it just says that sometimes you’ll have to eat some Savoy cabbage. Or you have to eat now some Savoy cabbage. Which is much, much easier for many kids.

With event pairs, perfective verbs are basically always used, such as:

kupovati (kupuje) ~ kupiti buy

For example:

Moram kupiti novu majicu. I have to buy a new T-shirt.

Using the impf. event verb would usually mean repetition; it’s frequently further elaborated with words like češće more often or rjeđe less often:

Moram češće kupovati crne majice. I have to buy black T-shirts more often. (impf.)

In 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’.

Warning. If the verb in inf has a pronoun as its object, it goes to the second position (unless you use a stressed form!):

Želim te vidjeti. I want to see you. (!)

Here the pronoun te² (ti in A) is the object of the verb vidjeti see, and not of the verb željeti want! (Verbs in inf cannot have subjects, so te² cannot be its subject.) If you would mistakenly translate the last sentence word-for-word, you would get:

(wrong translation!) I want you to see.

Check also the past tense:

Željela te je vidjeti. She wanted to see you. (!)

This is an example where the word order in Croatian is completely different than in English, and it simply doesn’t carry the meaning English order does. (How to express I want you to see will be explained in 56 Desires and Demands. If you’re impatient, it’s želim da vidiš.)

When using stressed pronouns (which is not the default option in speech and writing!) the order of words is more like English:

Želim vidjeti tebe.  ▶  I want to see you. (not someone else)

You’ll sometimes see another construction, which uses verb + da + verb in the present tense, both verbs in the same person. In such a construction, the word da restarts word-counting and holds the first position:

Želim da jedemjesti jabuku. I want to eat an apple.

Želim da te vidim. I want to see you.

Such constructions are more common in eastern parts of Croatia, but you will encounter them in songs and literature as well.®

Of course, verbs like trebati can used simply with an object, but 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!)

To help you remember irregular present tense forms of these verbs, they will be shown in dark blue, and you’ll get a pop-up with the inf and the name of the present tense form (e.g. pres-1, if you place your mouse over the irregular forms – or touch them, if you use a touchscreen.

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 expected for htjeti – like for other verbs in -jeti, e.g. vidjeti see – but irregular for moći:

htjetihtio, htjela
moćimogao, mogla

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

Both verbs are used like the others listed above:

jesti jabuku.
 ▶  I want to eat an apple.

jesti jabuku.
I can eat an apple.

We can sleep.

jesti jabuku.
I could eat an apple. {f}

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’, and this is another way to ask for food and drink — but also to offer it to someone, e.g. your guests. You can hear it in shops, cafes, at home, everywhere – conversations like this one are very common:

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

 ▶  (colloq.) Yes. (lit. ‘OK.’)

Pay attention that the word after može is in nominative. This expression is used both for asking for something (e.g. by a customer) and offering something (e.g. by a waiter or host):

(colloq.) ®  
    Want some coffee?
Can I/we get some coffee?

In both cases, an affirmative answer could be just može. However, keep in mind that this is colloquial, people are not using it in very formal occasions.

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):

neg. pres-1
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) be 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 mogumoći
jesti jabuku.
I cannot eat an apple.

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

Present tense forms of this verb coincide with the present tense forms of the verb smijati (smije) se² laugh in writing ®. However, it’s easy to distinguish them:

  • the verb meaning laugh is never used with another verb in infinitive, and always has a se² with it;
  • the verb meaning be allowed to is usually used with another verb in infinitive.

(Those who distinguish long from short wovels in their speech usually pronounce the i in the present tense of laugh long, and short in the present tense of be able to.)

The stress usually shifts to negation in the present tense of smjeti (smije, smio, smjela) be allowed to; the shift happens in Zagreb as well, so I’ll write ne smije, etc. This gives you another way to distinguish it from smijati (smije) se² laugh, where the stress never shifts (as marked by underlines in its forms).

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 are more verbs like the ones above; these are related to trying:

pokušavati («) ~ pokušati (+ inf)
probati perf. (+ A / inf) ®

The difference is that the second 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 pants on.

Goran je probao kolač. Goran tasted the cake.

You should pay attention that the verb probati perf. try is a perfective verb, so it’s normally not used in the present tense.®

On the other hand, the pair pokušavati («) ~ pokušati cannot be used with objects in A at all – with a partial exception of pronouns like to. The impf. verb is used in the present tense or with repeated trying in the past – it’s an event verb pair – while the perf. verb is used when you tried something and that was it, regardless of success or not:

Pokušavam spavati. I’m trying to sleep. (impf.)

Pokušala sam otvoriti prozor. I tried to open the window. (perf.) {f}

In this example, I’ve used the perf. event verb from the pair otvarati («) ~ otvoriti («) open, since the speaker obviously didn’t try to open and close and open again the window.

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

+ inf + A / inf
moći (može +, mogao, mogla) can
morati must
namjeravati («) intend
pokušavati («) ~ pokušati try
smjeti (smije,...) may
htjeti (hoće +,...) want
planirati («) plan
probati perf. try
trebati need/should
željeti (želi,...) 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 mogumoći
I can’t do that.

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

Ne mogumoći
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:

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.

However, it’s not really polite to say simply želim + A to someone you’re not familiar with. Consequently, there’s a way to ‘soften’ such expressions, and you’ll see it in the following chapter.


® In Serbia, infinitives are less often used: in speech, the form da + present prevails almost completely. For instance, the first sentence in Serbia would rather be basically always Želim da jedem jabuku. You will sometimes hear such constructions in Croatia and Bosnia as well.

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 jedemjesti jabuke.

The past-m form htjeo is frequent in Bosnia.

Instead of kava, a slightly different word kafa is common in most parts of Bosnia and Serbia. In Bosnia, the form kahva is used as well, especially in parts where Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) live.

In Serbia, the verb smjeti (smije, smio, smjela) be allowed to is used in the “Ekavian” form, which is just smeti; the verb is fully regular, but like “Ekavian” razumeti understand, its pres-3pl is smeju (therefore, it doesn’t coincide with the “Ekavian” form of laugh, except in the 3rd person plural). Besides, it has an additional meaning dare.

In parts of Dalmatia, the verb probati perf. try is colloquially used in a slightly different form: provati. In Serbia, it’s common to use the verb probati in the present tense as well, unlike in Bosnia or Croatia.

↓ Something Possibly Interesting (click to show)

↓ Examples (click to show)

↓ Exercise (click to show)

5 Easy Croatian: 38 Needs, Wishes and Intentions →   You can also read this chapter in French . N A  DL  G 24 I Let’s now see how to say I want to sleep or Ana intend...

↓ 2 comments (click to show)