How to use "prefer" in English ("" vs. "Prefer...than": a common mistake)

How do you use the word "prefer" in English? In this post, we will look at FIVE common structures with this word, and one common mistake that some English learners make with this everyday word.

First, let's take a look at two brief conversations:

Conversation 1

Sammy: Do you prefer horror movies or kung-fu movies?

David: I definitely prefer kung-fu movies.

Conversation 2

Ruby: Do you prefer listening to rock or jazz?

Eddie: In general, I prefer listening to jazz.

Prefer + object of preference

The structure in conversation 1 is simple to see. You use the verb "prefer" plus your preference. Here is another example of this usage:

Sammy: Do you like tea?

David: I don't mind tea, but I prefer coffee.

When we prefer something, we like it more than something else. Someone can ask you if you like something, and you can answer "yes" or "no," and state your preference, as in the tea and coffee example above. (You can also say "I like coffee more than tea.")

Prefer + gerund (verb+ing)

In conversation 2, we are talking about a general preference for an activity. We usually use a gerund (verb+ing) to do this. Here is another example of this usage:

Mio: Do you like going to the movies on weekends?

Hector: Sometimes. But honestly, I prefer staying home on weekends.

Prefer + to-infinitive

When you want to mention a specific instance or moment of preference, you should usually use "prefer" plus a to-infinitive. Here are two examples of this usage:

Jane: Are you going to take your bike to the park?

Emily: Nah. I prefer to walk. (Note: "I prefer walking" is also fine to express that Emily generally prefers walking instead of taking her bike.)

Aaron: Do you want some help with that?

Rita: No, I prefer to do it by myself.

In these cases, you can also use "would prefer" in the same way you use "would like" to state your preference at a particular moment, and because the potential action is still just a possibility. Here are the same sentences, but with "would prefer" instead of "prefer":

Jane: Are you going to take your bike to the park?

Emily: Nah. I would prefer to walk.

Aaron: Do you want some help with that?

Rita: No, I would prefer to do it by myself. (In this case, the possibility of Rita NOT doing it by herself is an available option, but she is saying "If I had the option of having help or doing it by myself, I would prefer to do it by myself.")

What about ""?

If you want to compare two things or activities and state which one you like better in general, you should use "" Note the examples:

Terry: "Do you like Coke or Pepsi?"

Shirley: "I prefer Coke to Pepsi." (Or: "I like Coke more than Pepsi.")

Isaac: "Do you prefer reading books or watching TV?"

Doug: "I very much prefer reading books to watching TV."

As you can see, when you want to compare two objects OR your general preference between two activities (remember: Use a gerund!), use ""

In casual settings, you can also say you prefer something over something else. For example: "I prefer steak over porkchops" or "He prefers cooking over cleaning."

What about "prefer...than"?

Use "prefer...than" when you use the prefer + to-infinitive structure. Take a look at these conversations:

Toni: "Do you want to drive or take the bus?"

Rosa: "I prefer to drive than to take the bus." (Note: You can also use "I would prefer" in these cases, or say "I prefer driving to taking the bus" to state your general preference when you are given these options.)

Jamie: "Do you prefer to do yoga or to go jogging?"

Britt: "I prefer to go jogging than to do yoga." (Or: "I prefer jogging to yoga.")

It is important to note that it's not just English as a second language learners who sometimes make mistakes with these structures. In casual situations, some 1st language English speakers sometimes mix up these rules as well. For example, at a pub, you might hear, "I prefer singing than dancing!" when it should be "I prefer singing to dancing!"

Common mistake

There is a common mistake that many people make with "prefer." You have already seen it in the pub example above. While it is sometimes accepted depending on the people around you and the situation you are in, you should do your best to avoid it. Here are multiple examples of the mistake and the correct form.

"He prefers books than TV."

"He prefers books to TV."

"When I was a kid, I preferred playing outside than staying at home."

"When I was a kid, I preferred playing outside to staying at home."

"Do you prefer swimming than cycling?"

"Do you prefer swimming to cycling?"

If you really want to use "than" to discuss your preferences in these cases, remember that you need to use the verb "like" and the phrase "more than." Note the examples:

"He likes books more than TV."

"When I was a kid, I liked playing outside more than staying at home."

"Do you like swimming more than cycling?"

I hope you have found this information useful! Tell me in the comments: What do YOU prefer?

  1. Tea or coffee? (Ex: "I prefer tea to coffee.")

  2. Cooking or cleaning?

  3. Books or TV?

  4. Driving or taking public transportation?

  5. Learning online or learning in a classroom?

See you in the comments, and until next time, I wish you success in your studies!

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