In some languages, ‘willing to’ and ‘want to’ mean the same thing, but in English the meaning is quite different.
What is the correct response to this question?
‘What do you want to do when you leave school?’
1. I want to be a doctor
2. I’m willing to be a doctor.
The meaning of ‘willing to’
‘I’m willing to’ means that you have agreed to do something (usually because someone asked you to do it or for the reasons listed below).
Being ‘willing’ to do something often involves costs or a sacrifice or even risk that you might lose something, so there is often a condition added.
I’m willing to do it if…
- I have to (I’m willing to work late if the pay is good)
- there’s not much choice. (I’m willing to do the late shift if you can’t find anyone else)
- it’s the right thing to do (I’m willing to take my elderly neighbour shopping if she needs help).
- it benefits me or someone else (I’m willing to work overtime to get more money)
- it makes sense (I’m willing to pick up litter if it helps improve the neighbourhood).
In all of these cases it is possible that you also want to do these things, but that is not always true.
e.g. You’re willing to work late to get money (not because you want to).
There are other dictionary definitions [inclined to, prepared to, ready to, favourably disposed to, eager to] but these definitions are not always helpful.
In order to avoid mistakes with this language point, ask yourself ‘Why are you doing something? Because you want to? Or have to? Did someone ask you to do the thing you are (un)willing to do?’
The meaning of ‘unwilling to’
If you say you are unwilling or not willing to do something it is similar to refusing. So it has a very negative meaning.
I noticed this recently in an advert for IELTS online coaching (see the mistake highlighted below).
The advert (wrongly) suggests that you are refusing to join the regular classes after they asked you to.
Here are some examples that my followers on Instagram gave me:
‘I’m willing to pay a little extra for canvas shopping bags if it helps reduce plastic waste’.
‘I’m willing to pay for organic food if it helps the environment’.
‘I’m willing to pay for a private tutor if it means I will get a better job’.
‘I’m willing to travel in my job even though I don’t enjoy it’.
‘I’m willing to have the Covid vaccine if it helps protect others’.
‘I’m willing to cancel my trip to Hawaii if staying home helps flatten the curve’.
‘I’m willing to help prepare food if you need a hand’.
‘I’m willing to do the dirty work if you pay me properly’.
Examples that I corrected*:
1. *I’m willing to write my Master’s thesis if I can graduate soon.
Better: ‘I have to write my Master’s thesis soon in order to graduate’.
2. *I’m willing to pay extra attention to the reading section of IELTS if it helps to achieve the desired band.
Better: I have to/should spend more time on the reading section in order to achieve the desired band.
3. *I’m willing to do a 9-5 job if they pay me a good amount.
Better: I’m willing to work overtime if they pay me a good amount.
Decide what you want, and decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work.
If you’re not willing to risk the unusual, you’ll have to settle for the ordinary.
You cannot grow unless you’re willing to change.
If you’re not willing to learn, no-one can help you. If you’re determined to learn, no-one can stop you.
Courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway.
‘If you’re not willing to work for it, don’t complain about it’
Get more help with grammar with these blogs.
Grammar lessons included in the Members Academy syllabus.
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