Just saw this: "prefer ~ing" / "prefer to infinitive" and I am wondering if there are any differences between "prefer doing" and "prefer to do".

I have read a book about grammar that says there is a subtle difference between them, and I would like to confirm this concept. Am I right about the following?


refers to a habit

e.g.: I prefer swimming than running. (This is a preference I have in everyday life)


refers to a particular event

e.g.: I prefer to have a cup of coffee. (I only want a cup of coffee this time, I may want a cup of tea next time)


1 Answer 1


There is a subtle difference, but it's not due to something being a single event or not.

I prefer to have a cup of coffee (this time).

This isn't talking about a particular event because of to have, it's a particular event because of the use of a in the sentence construction.

Contrast it with the following:

I prefer to have single cups of coffee (in general).

Now, it's no longer a single event. It's talking about an ongoing state of affairs and intentions.

So, let's compare those two sentences:

I prefer having single cups of coffee.
I prefer to have single cups of coffee.

The only real difference between the two, which is often not really thought about, is that the former talks more about those times during which a single cup of coffee is in the process of being had. Meanwhile, the latter talks more about the nature of how the coffee will be had.

It's a subtle distinction. In fact, most people would probably frame the statement differently, bypassing the distinction altogether:

I prefer single cups of coffee.

A similar analysis could be performed on your first sentence, although I need to rephrase it slightly:

I prefer swimming to running.
I would rather swim than run.

I would say that the distinction here is even more subtle and less present. But if it's to be made at all, it would again be that the first sentence talks more about being currently engaged in the process of the activity (perhaps in the context of enjoying it), while the second talks more about the idea of the activities (perhaps theorizing about their benefits).

In both cases, however, there is really no effective difference between the two. They are often used interchangeably.

  • Jason, do you think that it could be worthwhile to teach my students the use of Gerunds as the object of the sentence? I taught them the use of some verbs like hate, dislike, love, like, prefer. For example, "I prefer cooking ceviche, rather than pachamanca." But then, I noticed that it is possible to say "I hate to do this" ....In which contexts can I say "I love to do/I prefer to or I hate to do sth? Can you share with me some examples please? :) Giselle Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 4:19
  • @GisellaSuárez In every context I can think of, you can use either a gerund or the present participle. In some contexts, the gerund is more natural. It's easier to say swimming is fun than it is to say it is fun to swim. Even though the second is fine, it's a bit awkward. Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 16:01

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