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What is the difference between the following sentences?

I would prefer to discuss the matter in private.

I would like to discuss the matter in private.

I am used to prefer used in sentences similar to "I prefer Verona to Rome." In the first sentence there isn't a comparison between two different situations. In such cases, I would use like rather than prefer.

Is there any reason to choose one sentence instead of the other?

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If someone starts discussing something with you in a public place, then would prefer is quite appropriate, since you're in a situation where there is a clear choice.

If you are bringing up a matter without actually going into detail, then would like is more appropriate.

If there is a choice, or if the matter has been brought up before, then prefer makes more sense.

  • 3
    I suppose if we take OP's example at face value, there must have been something said previously in order for it to make sense to talk about "the matter". But if we made it just "a matter", you could walk up to someone and just say you'd like to discuss it in private. Quite normal. But it would be at least slightly odd to start the whole conversation with I would prefer to discuss a matter in private, just out of the blue. That's a related, but detectably distinct difference between normal valid usages for the two verbs. – FumbleFingers Feb 1 '13 at 4:11
  • Thanks, @FumbleFingers; I've added that qualification to the answer. – barbara beeton Feb 1 '13 at 13:09
  • It would be nice if ELL could manage to upvote questions/answers like this enough to knock things like friend who is a girl but not a girlfriend and Why is “a Japanese” offensive? off the top of the list here. It always makes me roll my eyes when I look at the top-voted half-dozen on ELU. Interesting trivia has its place, but that's not necessarily at the "top table". – FumbleFingers Feb 1 '13 at 14:41
  • @Fumble: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what strikes a chord with the masses isn't always what appeals to the intellect. (Just look at what TV shows get the highest ratings - those aren't usually the best brain food running over the airwaves.) – J.R. Feb 1 '13 at 20:56
  • @J.R.: It's not that I don't like the "trivia" questions being on the site - they are "sort of" interesting. I just wish they weren't so heavily represented at the top of the "sort by votes" list. – FumbleFingers Feb 1 '13 at 21:56
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Like indicates a desire to do something; prefer indicates a desire to do something over something else.

So:

I would like to discuss the matter in private.

means that I want to discuss the matter in private, but:

I would prefer to discuss the matter in private.

might mean that I would rather discuss the matter privately rather than publicly.

In short, if you and I needed to discuss something, and I wanted to do so privately, I might say to you:

I would like to discuss this matter in private.

However, for the sake of discussion, let's assume I only said,

I would like to discuss this matter with you.

and we were within earshot of other people. You might respond with,

Okay, let's talk about it.

in which case I might reply:

I would prefer to discuss the matter with you in private.


This nuance can be found in the dictionary. NOAD defines the verb like as:

wish for; want

while prefer is defined as:

like (one thing or person) better than another or others (emphasis added)

1

Use I would prefer to when you would like to indicate that you don't like how things are progressing currently and would like to express your preference to change them.

Use I would like to when there is no need to change the current course of events.

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Prefer is similar to like. But they have differences when you are making statements. Prefer goes with to and like goes with more than. For example:

I prefer beans to peas.
I like beans more than peas.

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