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Imagine the following conversation.

A: Oh, there is Bugs Bunny on television.
B: Who is Bugs Bunny? Is it your new boyfriend?
A: I don't have a new boyfriend; I prefer my old boyfriend.

B just wants to know of whom A is speaking; maybe Bugs Bunny is the nick used for a celebrity or for a person A knows, not to mean that Bugs Bunny.

Is prefer correct, in this case? Looking at the definition given from the dictionary, I read the following.

to like one thing or person better than another; to choose one thing rather than something else because you like it better

In this case, there isn't a second person for which the comparison can be done. I would think that "I like my old boyfriend." is a better phrase.
Is it really so, or is there any reason to use prefer in this context?

Should I understand "I prefer my old boyfriend." as "I prefer still having my old boyfriend than not having a boyfriend."? Is prefer really used with that meaning?

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    I think it's sort of silly to apply such rigorous logic to jocular conversation. Your question posits the existence of X; your friend picks up the joke and runs with it. – StoneyB May 16 '13 at 9:56
  • Except that my friend didn't pick up the joke, and didn't run with it. It's the third time I make a similar joke, and she is serious when she says "I don't have a new boyfriend." and the next sentences. – kiamlaluno May 16 '13 at 9:59
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    Well, she may mistake the meaning of prefer; but she may mean "I prefer my old, real boyfriend to any imaginary alternative." Perhaps her sense of humor is subtler than you think. :) – StoneyB May 16 '13 at 10:24
  • It could be, but I am not asking what she meant. :) – kiamlaluno May 16 '13 at 11:10
  • When I read the sentence, I assumed @StoneyB's interpretation. "I would rather have my old boyfriend than [any other that might have been implied from the conversation]". – WendiKidd May 16 '13 at 13:25
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We often use language as though one thing is really something else. In this example, the imaginary person may not literally exist, but for the sake of the sentence they're pretending they do.

This is really no different from saying something like this while I'm searching for my lost car keys:

Where did you go!? Stupid keys.

The keys aren't actually stupid; they aren't animate, so they couldn't have gone anywhere; and they wouldn't normally be addressed with the second-person pronoun "you". But since I'm personifying the keys, I'm acting as though they're a real person I can talk to.

We use this kind of metaphor in speech all the time, and it's more general than just personification. If we speak as though A is B, the speech isn't necessarily wrong--it just shouldn't be taken literally.

  • Good answer - particularly the final sentence. As I recall, this isn't the first time OP has queried the validity of some usage on the grounds of logic, despite clear evidence that idiomatically it is something that people do actually say. Note that you can also say "I lost my stupid key" - which could to the literal-minded imply said key is being personified (and is thus capable of being characterised as "intellectually challenged"). – FumbleFingers May 16 '13 at 20:45
  • It's not a matter of logic. In Italian, if a woman would tell me "I don't have a new boyfriend; I prefer my old boyfriend." I would understand it as "I prefer my old boyfriend to all the men who are around me and who want to be my new boyfriend." Querying the validity of a phrase is something learners often do, as they don't know if a phrase is idiomatic or contains a typo, nor do they know if the phrase can be generalized. – kiamlaluno May 26 '13 at 10:39
  • @snailboat Can I say "I don't have any car; I prefer my old car."? – kiamlaluno May 26 '13 at 11:05

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