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Whenever someone tells me that he or she prefers something, I take it as though the person is likely to choose that thing, but if it is not available, then the person is open to choosing something else.

To me, it contrasts with someone telling me that he or she only wants something. I take that as though the person only desires that thing, and if it's not available, then he or she will keep waiting or looking for it. That is, the person is not open to choosing something else.

For example:

  • "I prefer vanilla ice cream." (If there's no vanilla ice cream, she might just get another flavor.)
  • "I only want vanilla ice cream." (If there's no vanilla ice cream, she might go to a different store or wait for vanilla ice cream to be made.)

The above is my own understanding. First question is, is my understanding correct?

Secondly, I have come across quite a few situations where someone tells me they prefer something, but really what they mean is they only want that. So I misunderstand them and offer an alternative, only to be met with a baffling dismissal. After attempting to clarify with them on why they don't want the alternative, I understand what they really meant. It is frustrating, and I would wish they had been clearer by saying they only want something instead of preferring it.

So my second question is, can "prefer" and "only want" be used interchangeably? Or is that person just plain wrong to use "prefer" when they mean "only want"?

Please suggest any additional relevant tags I can add.

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    1) yes, your understanding is correct. 2) Yes, the person is not speaking in a logical manner. That's humans for you. Best just try to live with it, if you correct people on this they will generally avoid you. – Max Williams Oct 3 '16 at 13:52
  • @MaxWilliams thanks. Can it be an answer? I think I should start asking about alternatives in advance. Like "I prefer vanilla" "What if there's only strawberry or chocolate?" "No, I don't want those." (thinks to myself: Oh so you only want vanilla) :) – ADTC Oct 3 '16 at 14:30
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    What's going on is that saying "I only want..." is considered fussy and a bit rude. So speakers euphemize it to "I prefer...". – DJClayworth Oct 3 '16 at 14:59
  • @ADTC I would just say "what if there's no vanilla?" – Max Williams Oct 3 '16 at 15:33
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    There may be some confusion in the ice cream parlor, but if you're talking in class, and the teacher says, "I'd prefer you not do that", she's not open to your continuing to interrupt her lecture. It's a polite command that doesn't contemplate an alternative. – deadrat Oct 3 '16 at 17:55
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1) yes, your understanding is correct.

2) Yes, the person is not speaking in a logical manner. That's humans for you.

Best just try to live with it, if you correct people on their illogical speech, they will generally* call you "pedantic" and avoid you. That said, there's always a friendly diplomatic way to deal with it like "ah, well I thought it would be better to accidentally buy you an ice cream than to accidentally not buy you one".

*some people actually enjoy this sort of thing and will enjoy discussing it, and there is probably a greater proportion of them on this website. But most people just find it annoying.

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