Beginners usually learn how to express preferences in German early on in their course. However, as they usually learn them without much of an explanation on the grammatical differences between them, students usually think they can pick and choose whichever word they fancy using. Alas, things aren‘t that easy in German. In this post, I explain how to use mögen, gern, lieber, and am liebsten correctly.
The most common preference word in German is mögen. Mögen is almost always used with nouns and therefore communicates a general preference.
E.g. Ich mag Tennis
Die Frau mag kein Fleisch
Ihr mögt keine Äpfel
It is important to note that when we say “ich mag Tennis”, we only say we like the sport, we don’t say that we actually play it. So it’s a general preference in that sense.
Gern, by contrast, is used for preferences regarding verbs, so specific preferences.
E.g. ich spiele gern Tennis
Die Frau isst nicht gern Fleisch
Ihr esst nicht gern Äpfel
The position of adverbs like gern is normally third, straight after the conjugated verb.
Lieber is the comparative form of gern and usually translates as prefer. We normally use it to suggest alternatives to what was said before. Someone might ask you ‘spielst du gern Tennis” and you might want to respond “ich spiele lieber Fußball”. So you prefer/you’d rather play football.
E.g. Ich esse lieber Gemüse
Ihr esst lieber Bananen
Am liebsten is the superlative form of gern and communicates the strongest preferences, so when you like doing something the most.
Ich spiele am liebsten Volleyball
Die Frau isst am liebsten Fisch
Ihr esst am liebsten Birnen.
To summarise, mögen is used with nouns, gern is used after verbs, as are lieber and am liebsten but they are the comparative and superlative forms of gern.