definition: to consider more desirable than something else.
example: She prefers dark chocolate to milk chocolate.
example: He prefers walking to taking the bus.
example: I prefer to live in a small town rather than in a large city.
example: They prefer us to come on the weekend rather than during the week.
example: I prefer his living at home to his living in an apartment he cannot afford.
example: We prefer that our son be seen by another doctor.
example: I prefer that she sit here next to me.
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You may have wondered why we’ve provided so many examples for the word “prefer.” This is because there are quite a number of standard ways that “prefer” is followed by other words.
“Prefer” is one of a set of verbs that can be followed by another verb either in the infinitive form or in the gerund form; that is, we can say “I prefer to live in the country (infinitive) or “I prefer living in the country” (gerund).
In general, the infinitive form may be more common following “prefer” than the gerund (-ing) form, but both are important, and both are used. The gerund form tends to be the more common form when referring to some action that is already part of one’s experience of life rather than to a possible future action. For example, if I say that I prefer skating to skiing, it means that I have experienced both of these actions and I think skating is more appealing. On the other hand, if I say “I prefer to skate,” it often refers to skating as a future activity: I prefer to skate tomorrow instead of going skiing.
When the verb that follows “prefer” is the action of someone else rather than the subject of the verb “prefer,” English has a number of ways of handling this. One way is shown in the fourth example above: “They prefer us to come on the weekend rather than during the week.” (The people who might be coming on the weekend or during the week are “us.”) It is also possible to add the word “for” and say “They prefer for us to come on the weekend.”
The fifth example above (“I prefer his living at home to his living in an apartment he cannot afford”) is another example of the way that we can express our preference with regard to another person’s actions. (Notice that this type of construction uses a possessive adjective, “his,” before the gerund. “His” is used here because the gerund itself is a verbal noun, and traditional grammar dictates that it be modified by an adjective.) Once again, the gerund is most often used after “prefer” when it is referring to some action or activity that is already part of someone’s life. In the example sentence, “he” is currently living at home; “he” is not living in an apartment; and this is the situation that the subject prefers. The sentence does not refer to a possible future action or situation.
The last two examples above–“We prefer that our son be seen by another doctor” and “I prefer that she sit here next to me”–show another way that the subject can express a preference concerning the actions of another person. The construction used in these sentences is quite special and not extremely common. Using it creates a formal and somewhat forceful tone, and it refers to a future action of this other person or persons. The construction uses a clause beginning with “that” (e.g., “that our son be seen…) and uses a verb in the subjunctive mood, in this case, “be.” The same meaning could be expressed by saying “We prefer our son to be seen by another doctor,” but the tone would be a little less forceful and formal. In the second example, “I prefer that she sit next to me,” the verb “sit” is also in the subjunctive, which is why it is “sit” and not “sits.” The present subjunctive is formed with what appears to be the infinitive form of the verb. The subjunctive mood of the verb shows that the action is not yet real or decided upon and is not under the control of the person who has a desire or preference about it. In English, only a relatively small set of verbs are followed by a clause that uses the present subjunctive. (See the posting for the word “suggest” in the Academic Vocabulary Word of the Day for a further discussion of the subjunctive.)
Surprisingly, there is still more to be said about “prefer.” In ordinary conversation and writing, it is very common to use “would prefer” instead of just “prefer” when we don’t want to sound too forceful and don’t want to sound as if we are pressing our opinion and desires on other people. For example, if you were with people trying to decide whether Tuesday or Friday would be the best time for a meeting, you might express how you feel by saying something like “I would prefer Friday.” It is similar to the way we use “would like” (e.g., “I would like to speak to the doctor”) instead of “want” (e.g., “I want to see the doctor.”) Using “would like” or “would prefer” makes statements that express our desires or opinions less forceful and direct, and often, therefore, more polite.