One of the questions I am often asked is: ‘What does ‘rather’ mean, and I how can I use it?’ It’s one of those words that has many meaning and uses, and some of these are quite subjective as far as I can make out from websites I have visited.
1 ‘Rather‘ can be an adverb – It is rather cold today (hace algo de frío hoy). In this case it is similar to ‘quite‘ or ‘fairly‘ but tends to be rather subjective.
‘This restaurant is quite expensive’ states a fact, whereas
‘This restaurante is rather expensive’ may be the speaker’s subjective view.
2 ‘I would rather‘ is another way of saying ‘I would prefer to‘ and these two structures often crop up in PET or FCE exams.
‘I would rather go to an Indian restaurant than a Chinese one’= ‘I would prefer to go to an Indian restaurant than a Chinese one’.
Sometimes you can even see this sentence: ‘I would prefer to go to an Indian restaurant rather than a Chinese one’, although this seems a bit excessive! Notice the use of ‘than‘. As you probably remember, ‘than‘ is used in comparative sentences (‘Jávea is a bit bigger than Denia – or is it the other way round?’). Although these sentences with ‘would prefer’ and ‘would rather’ are not strictly comparatives, you are kind of comparing two things and this might help you to remember to put ‘than‘ and not ‘that‘ (since in Spanish it would be ‘que‘ in both cases).
Notice the difference between:
‘Would you rather live in the city or the country?’ In this question I am asking you to choose between two options and I use ‘or‘.
‘I would rather live in the city than the country’. Here the speaker is stating a preference and so uses ‘than‘.
3 Gerund or bare infinitive (infinitive without ‘to’)?
This is rather more complex and even native speakers do not always agree about it!
Bare infinitive: ‘I prefer to give her money rather than buy her something she might not like’. This is similar to ‘instead of buying‘ (en vez de) but emphasises the preference of the speaker (‘prefiero darle dinero antes que comprarle algo que tal vez no le guste’).
‘I would go to jail rather than confess to something I hadn’t done’. Again, this sentence is describing a strong preference.
Gerund: ‘I´ll buy it now rather than waiting for the sales to start’. The gerund here describes a choice, but the speaker’s feeling is not very strong.
In all the above examples both gerund and bare infinitive could be used and the sentences would still be ‘right’ but the emphasis would be a bit different.
‘Taking a taxi rather than waiting for the bus will ensure you arrive on time’. In this case, since the sentence starts with a gerund it sounds much more natural to put a gerund after ‘than‘. Similarly: ‘She was watching TV rather than doing her homework’.
I hope that has cleared things up a bit. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask them!