How to say “to prefer” in German

Written By: Emanuel Updated: November 22, 2023

Hello everyone,

Advent Season is fast approaching and I am preparing harder than preppers in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But it’s not December yet, and so today we’ll have a normal episode.
And this time, the focus is actually on an English word. Because today, we’ll talk about

How to say “to prefer” in German

I got this idea in the Easy German discord recently, where someone asked about the difference between bevorzugen and vorziehen, and I was like “Wait a second, there’s something else there.”
Because neither of them are actually what’s used in daily life.
So, today we’ll find out all about it and if you’re ready, let’s jump right in.



“Uhm, we’re ready.”
Okay great! So we’ll jump in now, okay?
“Okay, go.”
I will, just making sure you guys are ready.
“We are ready, Emanuel. And we’d prefer you not waste our time with this stupid intr…”
Okay okay, here we go.

Let’s start with the translation for to prefer that most of you probably had in their mind first – bevorzugen.

bevorzugen

Bevorzugen is kind of the default translation for to prefer. That’s what you’ll see in dictionaries and what you’ll get from Google translate and also from ChatGPT.

 

 

Oh gee, thanks mom!!!
Not even self-conscious yet and already annoying as hell.

Anyway, so yeah. bevorzugen is kind of the default.
The verb looks a bit complicated and it feels clunky, but the structure is pretty much the same as in English – So whatever you prefer is the direct object.

  • Ich bevorzuge Bier.
  • I prefer beer.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Here’s one in past tense, as well

  • Früher hat Maria Wein bevorzugt.
  • Back in the day, Maria preferred wine.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And if you want to include the less preferred item, you’d do that by using gegenüber.

  • Ich bevorzuge Bier gegenüber Wein.
  • I prefer beer over whine.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

So prefer A over B in English, and in German it’s A bevorzugen… uh… I already forgot. It was something really long.
It won’t be in The Test™ though, so don’t worry about it.

Now, bevorzugen looks kind of weird and clunky, but I’m sure most of you have assumed correctly that it’s just one of German’s one shittilion prefix verbs.
But question is what is the prefix. Is it be + vorzugen or bevor + zugen? Because both, be- and bevor- are legitimate prefixes.

In this case, we’re dealing with a be-verb though, so it’s be + vorzugenvorzugen is essentially just the noun der Vorzug with a verb ending. der Vorzug can be an advantage or a preference and is itself based off of another prefix verb –vorziehen. Which is actually our second possible translation for to prefer.

vorziehen

Taken literally, vorziehen means to pull forward or to pull ahead. And it can be used in a more literal sense of moving something forward.

  • Kannst du die Couch ein bisschen vorziehen?
  • Can you pull the couch forward a little bit?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wir haben das Meeting eine Stunde vorgezogen.
  • We moved the meeting forward an hour.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But vorziehen also carries the idea of preference.
And if you can’t really see why, then just think of a company Christmas party. The part that’s fun is when the buffet opens and everyone gets drunk and starts to tell stories about each other.
So if we could, we would “pull that forward” to before the boring investor and team lead speeches.
In fact, the English to prefer isn’t all that different because the prefix pre is about forward and fer belongs to the same family as to bear – so  to prefer literally meant “to carry forward“. Which really isn’t too different from “pulling forward“.

But anyway, while vorziehen is the OG that bevorzugen is based on, it’s actually LESS common and sounds very formal.

  • Ich ziehe Bier vor.
    (I prefer beer)

This is quite stiff and no one would really ever actually say that. The only reason people would use this structure in writing is because you can easily add the less preferred item in Dative.

  • Ich ziehe das Bier dem Wein vor.
  • I prefer the beer over the wine.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But in practice, the only instance where vorziehen is maybe preferable over bevorzugen is in the context of actions.

  • Ich ziehe es vor, zu schweigen.
  • I prefer to remain silent.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I guess there’s also a small difference here in that bevorzugen would sound like a general preference while vorziehen can also talk about one particular context.

But if you’re now like “Oh wow, the nuances are so helpful.”  then let me tell you… they’re really NOT. You don’t need to worry about the difference between vorziehen and bevorzugen. At least not, until you have mastered what comes next.

Every German’s favorite – “lieber”

Earlier, I called bevorzugen the kind of “default” translation for to prefer. But I really only meant that in the sense that this is the translation you’ll most likely get from dictionaries or ChatGPT.

.

 

Well… I hate to break it to you, ChatGPT, but that’s WRONG!!! You’re WRONG! You did answer the question WRONG! bevorzugen is NOT the best way to say to prefer in German.

Because the real best way to express this in daily life is with lieber.
Technically, lieber is the “more-form” of of lieb, so it can mean more lovely, nicer.

  • Mein alter Chef war schon lieb, aber der neue ist noch lieber.
  • My old boss was nice and friendly, but the new one is even nicer, more lovely.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But lieber is also the “official” more-form of gern so it also expresses the idea that you “like something more“. Which is pretty much what to prefer expresses. Though the closest translation is probably rather, which expresses roughly the same and which has the exact same structure.

  • Ich trinke lieber Bier.
  • I prefer drinking beer. / I’d rather drink beer.
    (German doesn’t need a “würde” here… see the comments about “would rather”)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich mag lieber Bier.
  • I prefer beer. / I like beer better.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

It’s also SUPER easy to add the less preferred choice. Just like with rather, all we’re doing is a normal comparison, so in German all we need is als.

  • Ich esse lieber spät als früh.
  • I’d rather eat late than eat early.
    (
    I prefer eating late over eating early. )
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

     

And for completion, let’s also do a question and a negation.

  • Wo willst du lieber hin – Berlin oder Oslo?
  • Where would you rather go/ Where would you prefer to go – Berlin or Oslo?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich sage lieber nicht, was Maria gemacht hat.
  • I prefer to not say what Maria did. /I’d rather not say what Maria did.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now, could we use bevorzugen in any of these?
Well, technically yes. But it does sound a bit formal and especially in the last two examples it sounds REALLY clunky.

  • Wohin bevorzugst du es zu reisen – Berlin or Oslo?

Like, legit no native speaker talks like that.
Using lieber is just much more idiomatic!
And the phrasings we had so far weren’t even all of it yet.
There’s a second construction with lieber which might be even more useful:

jemandem (Dative) lieber sein

Literally, it means  “being more dear to someone” (hence the Dative) and the actual meaning is pretty much the exact counterpart of to prefer.

  • Bier ist mir lieber.
  • I prefer beer.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Was ist dir lieber – früh essen oder spät?”
    “Oh, spät essen ist mir lieber.
  • “What do you prefer – eating early or eating late?
    “Oh, I prefer eating late.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Mir wäre es lieber, wenn wir das Meeting morgen vorziehen könnten.
  • I would prefer if we could move the meeting forward tomorrow.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas meinte, morgen ist ihm lieber.
  • Thomas said, he‘d prefer tomorrow.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I know these constructions where English I, you, he, she change roles and become Dative  mir, dir, ihm, ihr and so on are a bit hard to get used to. But honestly… I don’t think I’ve used bevorzugen even once this year. It’s not that I’d say it’s rare. It’s just so clunky sounding, and most daily life preferences really are expressed with lieber. So yeah, it’s definitely worth investing the time to get used to it. Your German will sound much better.

Cool.

Now, we’re almost done for the day, but earlier when I gave the examples for lieber, some of you were starting to wonder, so let’s clear that stuff up real quick.

Word order with “lieber”

Yeah… I totally nailed it, I know :).
Let’s take the first example again:

  • Ich trinke lieber Bier.

The question that came up for some of you was about whether lieber can also be at the end and if so, what would be the difference in meaning.

The answer to the first question is yes, you may find both versions in daily life.

  1. Ich trinke lieber Bier.
  2. Ich trinke Bier lieber.

The difference in meaning here is that the second version ALWAYS talks about the general reality, while the first one CAN be about one particular instance.

So when you’re at the bar and the barkeeper is like “We got soy milk on offer”, you could use the first version to express that you prefer beer. The second version would not work in that scenario because it sounds like you’re talking about what you USUALLY prefer, which doesn’t say anything about the particular instance.

That said, having lieber AFTER the preferred item tends to be used when you’re actually doing a comparison.

  • Ich spiele lieber Fußball. …. sounds amazing
  • Ich spiele Fußball lieber.   …. sounds meh
  • Ich spiele lieber Fußball als Tennis.
  • Ich spiele Fußball lieber als Tennis.

So I’d say stick with putting lieber BEFORE the preference – that’s the safer bet and is always idiomatic.

And I think that’s it for today.
Sure, we could go on a bit and explore some nouns like die Präferenz (a preference in a situation, formal), or die Vorliebe (a general preference) or some other relatives like vorzugsweise (preferably) or vorzüglich (exquisite).
But frankly… I’d prefer to do that in the comments.
Or in German… mir wäre es lieber, das in den Kommentaren zu machen :)
Seriously, it’s enough for one day.

Now, usually there’s a little quiz here to check on the most important points. But for this one, I couldn’t really come up with more than a couple of good questions. And what really matters more here is the practice. So I have decided that we’ll do a little speaking exercise for lieber in the Advent Calendar. Nothing big, just a few phrases. And we’ll also do a little recap then.

So no quiz today, but of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, or if you want to try out some examples, just leave me a comment.

I hope you liked it and see you next time!

 

By the way: 

Uh… so, our Kickstarter campaign for the epic card game and webapp for German prefix verbs is already a success :D.
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It’ll run till January because we didn’t expect to reach our goal this fast, and now it’s pretty much a pre-sale :).
You can still join and secure yourself lifetime access to the app and get the physical card game immediately when they come out (early 2024).

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Perfect if you’re a online language school or a language learning app for example.
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