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I was recently in a bar in Prague, Czech Republic. When I was going to leave I said to a waiter:

Excuse me, I would like to pay.

He laughed a bit and explained that I should have said:

I want to pay.

because when I say

I would like to pay.

it means that I want to pay for him (i.e. pay his bill).

Was he right indeed? I thought both forms have the same meaning, besides the second one is more polite.

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    He was not right. If you had said, “I'll pay!”, it would be expected that you were talking to someone that you'd just shared a meal (or similar) with, and that you were offering to pay for them. If you say to a waiter, “I'd like to pay, please”, there is no such implication. “I want to pay” is stronger and might even be considered a bit rude in tone by some. The most common thing to say, however, would be, “Check, please”. Sep 14, 2013 at 14:57
  • @JanusBahsJacquet why not make that into an answer instead? I wouldn't even expand on it, just copy paste it.
    – terdon
    Sep 14, 2013 at 14:58
  • @terdon, good point—it started out as a quick comment, but then grew to more of an answer while I was typing (on my phone). Now added as an answer (with a bit of formatting added). Sep 14, 2013 at 15:03
  • Actually, the British English translation of this is "Can I have the bill?" When I lived in Germany I had to teach myself to ask to pay, rather than for the bill.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 14, 2013 at 17:33

1 Answer 1

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He was not right.

If you had said, “I'll pay!”, it would be expected that you were talking to someone that you'd just shared a meal (or similar) with, and that you were offering to pay for them. Variants of this include, “I'll get this one” and “This one’s on me”.

If you say to a waiter, “I'd like to pay, please”, however, there is no such implication. “I want to pay” is stronger and might even be considered a bit rude in tone by some.

The most common (and easy) thing to say, however, would be, “Check, please!”, which is used by patrons of restaurants, bars, cafes, etc. in many places around the world (though not in the UK), or the more polite version, “Could I have the check/bill, please?” (‘bill’ being used in the UK and sometimes Canada too; and ‘check’ being, as far as I know, more common most other places).

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    This is not a case of English grammar, but of Czech tradition. There are customs for drinking together in drinking establishments everywhere, and many of them deal with who's paying. If something like I would like to pay in Czech is traditionally interpreted as an offer to pay for the addressee, then so is its English translation. The use of a verb like _pay always implies a direct and an indirect object, and when they're omitted, the identity and nature of the objects is to be interpreted in context -- the context in Prague. Sep 14, 2013 at 15:14
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    @JohnLawler, that is of course true—cultural and situational context can always override purely grammatical-semantic defaults. Similarly, in Chinese, if you said, “I would like to pay”, there is a high probability that what you are really saying is, “I actually want you to pay”. My answer here was only as to what the phrases themselves mean, devoid of any further context. Sep 14, 2013 at 17:04
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: As this question shows, you can rarely figure out what anything really means without context. :^)
    – J.R.
    Sep 14, 2013 at 17:45
  • @J.R., very true. I should perhaps rather have said that this answer deals only with what the phrases on their own contain of inherent meaning, without the extra layers of specific contexts. :-) Sep 14, 2013 at 17:50
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    @TrevorD, you’re right, that was rather too much of a generalisation. I’ve amended it to something that should be more accurate. Sep 15, 2013 at 17:39

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