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I can come up with three phrases to express affection:

  1. Te adoro.
  2. Te amo.
  3. Te quiero.

The first two are fairly clear in intention. However, I have heard "Te quiero", which literally translates as "I want you" used to mean "I love you", especially in regards to one's children.

My question is, other than my example above, in what other situations would "Te quiero" be understood as "I love you" rather than "I want you"? I would imagine using this phrase at the wrong time could be awkward, if not disastrous.

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possible duplicate of Querer vs Amar & Adorar –  CesarGon Sep 16 '12 at 19:16
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

If you're saying it to a person, it means, I love you. If you're talking to a taco or some other inanimate object, it might mean I want you, but obviously you don't usually address inanimate objects as te.

In the case where you really need to say I want you in a romantic sense, you might use te deseo.

Incidentally, there are a lot more ways to express shades of affection in Spanish. Don't neglect to say estoy enamorado de ti, me encantas, and me tienes cautivado among many others. A Mexican once asked me just how interested I might be in her friend, ¿Ella te interesa, o te gusta, o la quieres, o la amas?.

To clarify, in context (but not in the bare phrase te quiero) you can use querer to express a desire about a person wholly unrelated to affection.

Quiero que lo hagas para el cliente → I want you to do it for our client.

Te quiero en la oficina a las siete en punto → I want you at the office at seven o'clock.

Te quiero decir que te odio → I want to tell you that I hate you

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To clarify: how would one translate, "I want you to volunteer for the soup kitchen," such as in a business or labor organization context? –  Aarthi Nov 20 '11 at 2:48
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Quiero que te ofrezcas de voluntario para la sopa de cocina –  Luis Carlos Nov 20 '11 at 5:35
    
"te deseo" is NOT "I want you" in a romantic sense. It is just sexual, be careful with that !. –  Sergio May 28 '12 at 11:44
    
Although it's a different part of speech, you gotta also remember "cariño". The Spanish have as many words for affection as the Eskimos have for snow! And they all have a slightly different shade of meaning. –  Walter Mitty Sep 16 '12 at 8:02
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