Preferences – ability, need, want, like and love

This section examines the various words used in Spanish for wanting, wishing, liking and loving both things and people. The verbs expressing need, desire and preference can be more complex than you will be used to in English, and this is an important thing to be able to say both accurately and appropriately.  

In Spanish the verbs relating to liking something, behave as reflexive verbs indicating something  that ‘pleases’ someone, so strictly if you ‘like’ something , it’s expressed as ‘it pleases you’.  Other verbs in English like to ‘love’ something have different connotations too, so this is an important area of the language to get right.  It’s good to show your appreciation but you wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself with a misunderstanding, would you!

Desire by degree

Need / Ability.

There are two principal ways you might express ‘need‘, depending on whether it refers to an action or verb (I need to …) or an object (I need …). Although we use the same verb in English, Spanish is different

To need something is necesitar algo, so I need a car is simply necesito un coche and we need help is necesitamos ayuda. So this, apart form the verb conjugations is pretty much the same as in English. It’s also quite easy to remember as it’s related to the adjective ‘necessary’ necesario/a and the noun ‘necessity’ necesidad.

However, ‘to need to… (do something)’ is a little more complicated and the difference between the two verbs is subtle.

To need to in the sense of ‘to have to’ uses tener que + infinitive . This tends to be used for something that, if not done, would have consequences, e.g.

Tengo que irme. I have to / need to leave (or I’ll be late).

The equivalent of ‘should’ or ‘must’ (more of an obligation or moral dilemma) is deber + infinitive

Debo ser puntual – I must (need to) be punctual (because it’s expected of me).

Deberías ver un medico You ought to see a doctor (conditional tense)

Debería haber trabajado más duro – I should have worked harder (conditional, but referring to the past, with regret).

‘There’s no need’ is no hace falta and no hace falta que hagas eso means ‘there’s no need for you to do that’ (using the subjunctive que hagas).

Another phrase is hay que + infinitive which indicates ‘people ought to’ or ‘one should’ , i.e. a general statement that it’s necessary to … .

Hay que estudiar – one needs to / ought to study, studying is necessary.

‘To be able to’ e.g. I can‘ or ‘I’m able to‘, is expressed using the irregular verb poder + infinitive.

yo puedo hablar francés – I can speak French

puedes entrar – you can go inside.

¿puede ayudarme? – can you help me? (polite you)

podemos, podéis, pueden – we/you/they can, e.g. ¿podemos pasar? ‘May we come in?’

To ask or say if something is generally possible or allowed, you could use se puede + infinitive . e.g. ¿se puede nadar aquí? – ‘is one allowed to swim here?’

More formal or polite requests might use the conditional form, e.g.:

me podrian aclarar ... – Could you explain … to me?

Want / Prefer.

It’s perhaps more often you’ll hear the direct ‘I want’ than ‘I would like’ , but both forms are used, and of course the latter is still a little more polite. The basic verb for each is querer, but in different tenses it takes on different meanings, such as the polite quisiera (I or he should like).

The verb ‘to want’ querer is an irregular verb, so it isn’t totally predictable but is fairly simple to learn:

I/you/he: quiero, quieres, quiere in the singular

we/you/they: queremos, queréis, quieren (plural)

So if a waiter asks ¿qué quieres? it simply means ‘what do you want (to order)?’ An appropriate response would be just to list what you want or to say quiero … for ‘I want …’.

The polite form uses the so-called imperfect subjunctive, which in this case means ‘… should like’, in practice the equivalent of ‘would like …’ in English. So you might be asked, rather formally, ¿qué quisiera? (you, polite) in which case conveniently the same word is used in reply – quisiera el pescado por favor, for example – I’d like the fish, please.

The imperfect subjunctive form is as below, although the most commonly used forms are quisiera in the singular and perhaps quisiéramos in the plural:

I/you/he: quisiera, quisieras, quisiera in the singular

we/you/they: quisiéramos, quisierais, quisieran (plural)

The above form might also be used if you would like to do something, e.g. quisiéramos alquiler un coche – we’d like to hire a car.

For other tenses, I’d suggest you consult a more detailed Spanish dictionary app which shows conjugations, but some useful words include:

quería – I/he/you (pol.) wanted (imperfect)

queríamos – we wanted (imperfect)

he/hemos querido – I/we have wanted (perfect)

querré – I will want (future)

Some related words and phrases you may come across include: the use of te quiero to mean ‘I love you’ or ‘I desire you’; querido/a mío/mía means my dear (m/f); querido or querida mean ‘dear’ and are used at the start of a letter: ‘Dear…’

¿Qué quiere decir esto? is a useful phrase what does this mean? (what does this ‘want to say’?) along with ¿Qué quiere usted decir? which means ‘What do you mean?’

To prefer is preferir, another irregular, but otherwise straightforward verb:

I/you/he: prefiero, prefieres, prefiere

we/you/they: preferimos, preferís, prefieren

‘It doesn’t matter’ is es igual, and ‘All the same to me’ is me da igual.


The verb ‘to like’, or more accurately ‘to be pleasing too’, is gustar. It works like a reflexive verb, in that it uses a n (indirect) object pronoun me, te , le, nos, os or les depending on who is ‘being pleased’. The full phrase would translate directly along the lines of: to me, is pleasing the subject – a mí me gusta ... . But the first part is only really used for emphasis, e.g. ‘I personally like …’ .

Most of the time you would simply say me gusta, te gusta, etc, noting that the form of the verb gustar doesn’t change unless it refers to multiple items (at least in the present tense – see later). This is because gusta is the 3rd person singular (it pleases), and its equivalent 3rd person plural is gustan (they please).

This is all best understood using a few examples below for I, you, he/she/you pol., we, you and they/you pl. pol.

(a mí ) me gusta el café I like coffee.

Me gustan los deportes acuáticos – ‘I like watersports’

(a ti ) ¿te gustan las uvas? – do you like the grapes?

¿a él le gusta el apartamiento? – does he like the apartment? [note le gusta is also used with the polite (usted) ‘you’) so without a él could mean do you (polite) like the apartment? ]

a Simon le gusta el deporte. – Simon likes sport.

(a nosotros) nos gusta mucho nuestro trabajoWe like our work very much.

¿os gusta la clima, no?you (pl.) like the climate, yes?

les gustan las vacaciones. – they like the holidays.

It’s also important to be able to say what you don’t like. This is straightforward, using the phrase no me gusta or no me gustan, of course changing the object pronoun to te, le, etc as appropriate.

When referring to an unspecified ‘it’, lo, la or los go before the verb if you know the gender, or just lo/los if gender isn’t either specified or relevant. So, for ‘I like it’ you’d say lo/la me gusta, and ‘I like them’ would be los/las me gustan. For an activity you (don’t) like, this is (no) lo me gusta, e.g. if asked ‘Do you like to travel?’, the response ‘Yes, I do.’ would be Sí, lo me gusta.

In the past, to express that you did or didn’t like something, you’d generally use either (no) me gustó or (no) me gustaron for singular / plural. This is the preterite, indicating that on an occasion you liked or didn’t like it.

If the thing you’re referring to continued for an extended period you’d use (no) me gustaba or (no) me gustaban – the imperfect tense. Again, you’d change the object pronoun appropriately.

The phrase tener gusto en + infinitive. is to be glad to (do,) or to take pleasure in (doing) something.


When you ‘love’ (really like) something , e.g. ice cream, the verb works very much the same as to like, i.e. its a reflexive verb – encantarse. Some examples are shown below to illustrate.

me encanta su casa I love your house (polite).

Me encantan los deportes acuáticos – ‘I love watersports’

le encanta el futbol – He loves football

nos encanta nuestro trabajoWe love our work – note it’s similar in meaning to ‘like very much’.

les encantan las vacaciones. – they love (the) holidays – either holidays in general or ‘the holidays’

Amar (to love) and adorar (to adore) are probably the more relevant to ‘romantic’ affection or love amongst family members. These are regular verbs, with the present tenses respectively shown below:

I/you/he: amo, amas, ama in the singular

we/you/they: amamos, amáis, aman (plural)

I/you/he: adoro, adoras, adora in the singular

we/you/they: adoramos, adoráis, adoran (plural)

Adorable means ‘adorable’, but amable translates as ‘kind, amiable, or nice’ and kindness is la amabilidad.

‘To fall in love’ is enamorarse and ‘to be in love with’ … is estar enamorado / enamorada de … , while ‘to make love’ is hacer el amor.

Signing off a letter ‘with love’ is Un abrazo.

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