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Many say that "prefer X to Y" has a more formal ring to it than "prefer X over Y". Are there any dialects where you wouldn't use "prefer X to Y" in colloquial speech at all? Conversely, are there any manuals of style that discourage using "prefer X over Y" in formal writing?

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"Prefer over" sounds alien to me as a British English speaker, so I assume it must be an American English convention. –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 23 '10 at 20:01
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It doesn't matter, the answer's tea. –  Hugo Nov 9 '11 at 7:16

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MDEU) suggests that to is the ordinary word used to construct comparisons using prefer: “when it is used to compare two things in the same sentence, the second […] is usually introduced by to.” They note that over (“Nine out of ten dentists prefer Crest over the competitors”), and rather than (“He prefers to stand rather than to sit”) are also used. Rather than is especially helpful when the compared items are infinitive clauses beginning with to, therefore avoiding the problem of too many tos ( * “He prefers to stand to to sit”). Above can also be used (“Prefers this brand above all others”), although they note that above, along with before, were noted by the OED as being used formerly.

MDEU notes that some commenters have criticized constructions with than and rather than, and suggests ultimately that plain than (“He would have preferred to fast than carry it”) is awkward because it is unfamiliar.

With respect to colloquial speech, I think that in some informal registers you wouldn’t use the verb prefer at all (which is a formal word), and would use like and a compatible syntactic comparative construction: “I like sleeping more than working”

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There may be a transatlantic divide here. As a speaker of BrEng I would always say I would prefer tea to coffee, and never I would prefer tea over coffee.

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I think you're right about the transatlantic divide; checking Google Ngrams, "prefer this to" is preferred overwhelmingly to "prefer this over" in American English, but "over" isn't even common enough to get on the chart in British English. –  Peter Shor Nov 8 '11 at 17:38

A: Would you like a ride?

B: No thanks, I prefer to walk.

You can't use prefer over in this case. Over is used when there are two clear choices in the phrase.

Think of over as setting a list of preferences and putting one over top the other.

I prefer jogging over running and walking.

I prefer fish over beef and chicken.

In these two examples, the meaning could be slightly ambiguous and sound like you're comparing two things, not three.

I prefer jogging to running and walking.

I prefer fish to beef and chicken.

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"No thanks, I prefer to walk"; The "to" in your example is part of the infinitive that you are using ("to walk"). Compare "I prefer a walk" or "Would you like (a) coffee?" "No thanks, I prefer tea". –  Ward Muylaert Dec 3 '12 at 16:19

My brain does not differentiate the two:

"I prefer sleeping to working"

"I prefer sleeping over working"

Sounds the same to me- perhaps "prefer/to" flows slightly better. On the other hand "prefer/to" is more likely to be ambiguous:

"I prefer sleep to work"

In conversation the word "rather" seems more common than "prefer" but others may have different experience. Either way- I would be shocked if anyone criticized your usage of "prefer/to" versus "prefer/over" in any unambiguous context- formal or not.

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How is "I prefer sleep to work." ambiguous? –  moioci Aug 24 '10 at 2:26
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Someone complaining that their sleep wasn't restful enough. :) ie. Their sleep isn't working. –  Sobachatina Aug 24 '10 at 12:29
    
Sorry no that is not ambigious, rather that is poor use of English. No one would ever say their sleep isn't working. –  Anonymous Type Mar 7 '11 at 2:57
    
How do you like the new carpool to work program? I don't like it, I prefer sleep to work. –  Xantix Sep 21 '12 at 23:31

They are both grammatically correct.

"Tea over Coffee" sounds the slightest bit metaphorical to me, and so might have some rhetorical implications in a longer narrative, but that's about the only real difference.

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When we say prefer there is an implied over.

Thus, prefer over is tautological. I think prefer to is preferable.

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protected by Will Hunting Mar 16 '12 at 17:36

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