The words por and para are extraordinarily confusing in Spanish, because they have such similar meanings and such diverse usages. Don’t expect to master the uses of por and para after finishing this lesson. It will take much longer to get used to all the instances in which one rather than the other is used.
Resources for further reading:
In general, por and para both mean for or by. Just to show how tricky translating the word “for” in English can be, look at the following sentences and try to translate them into Spanish your mind:
Is this what you got?
Notice that if you’re going to use the verb pedir (to ask for), you will NOT need to use either por or para, as “for” is already included in the meaning of the verb itself.
Usage #1: Thanks
The most common usage of por will be in the expression, “Thanks for…”
Usage #2: Motion
You will use the preposition por if you want to talk about going through a certain place or passing by a certain place. In these contexts, por takes on the meaning of through, by, along, or around.
Por ejemplo (for example): (Don’t forget this use of por!)
Usage #3: Duration
Por is also used to describe the duration of an activity or an action, in which case it can mean during, in, or for.
Usage #4: Reason
If you want to express a motive, a cause, or a reason for doing something, you may use por. In this context, its meaning will become: for, on behalf of, because of, or on account of.
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El niño dejó de estudiar por su problema médico.
The boy left his studies because of his medical problem.
Por culpa de ellos, no terminamos el trabajo.
Because of them, we didn't finish the job.
Lo hice por ella.
I did it for her.
Francisco viene por ella a las ocho.
Francisco comes for her at eight o'clock.
Por falta de estudiar no pasé el examen.
For lack of studying, I didn't pass the exam.
Usage #5: Looking for Something
If you are looking for something or someone, you will use the word por. In this context, it will mean for or in search of.
Juan regresó a su casa por la billetera.
Juan returned home for his wallet.
María fue a la biblioteca por un libro de historia.
María went to the library for a history book.
Usage #6: Via
Por can also mean via, by, or by way of.
Usage #7: Exchange
When you want to exchange something or substitute it with something else, you will need to use por to mean for or in exchange for.
Usage #8: Done by
You will often use por in sentences in the passive voice to express by whom the action was performed.
Usage #9: Measurement
Finally, you will often find por used in expressions of measurement, frequency, and even multiplication! It can mean for, per, or times.
Fortunately, para has fewer uses than por.
Usage #1: Gifts
If you give something to someone, you will use para.
Things can get a bit tricky if you talk about buying a gift for someone as a favor to someone else. Just remember: if you give something to someone, you will use para. If you do something for someone, you will use por.
Usage #2: Destination
If you are talking about your destination or direction of travel, you will use para to mean to, towards, or in the direction of.
Vamos para Barcelona este fin de semana.
Let's go to Barcelona this weekend.
Ángel ya salió para Buenos Aires.
Angel already left for Buenos Aires.
Los viajeros estaban yendo para el norte.
The travelers were going north.
Usage #3: Deadlines
When you make a deadline or appointment, you will need to use para.
Tengo una cita con el doctor para el miércoles.
He needs to finish the work by next Monday.
Él necesita terminar el trabajo para el próximo lunes.
I have an appointment with the doctor for Wednesday.
Usage #4: Comparisons and Opinions
If you want to say, “For me, once is enough,” or “For a second-grader, he’s very tall,” you will use para.
Usage #5: Employment
If you want to talk about who someone works for, you will use para.
Ramiro trabaja para un negocio de inversiones.
Ramiro works for an investment business.
La señora Bastidas del Carmen trabaja para la compañía eléctrica.
Mrs. Bastidas del Carmen works for the electric company.
DON’T confuse this with:
Look at Usage #4 of por to see why.
Usage #6: Instructions
If you want to say what one has to do in order to accomplish something, you will use para. In this case, it will mean “to” or “in order to.”
Usage #7: Purpose
If you want to talk about what something is for, or its purpose, use para.
If you can’t think of which one to use, you can probably say either por or para and still get your meaning across. However, be warned: the word you choose may affect how someone understands your sentence.
El señor Vega-Ramos fue para Buenos Aires. Mr. Vega went to Buenos Aires.
El señor Vega-Ramos fue por Buenos Aires. Mr. Vega went via Buenos Aires.
Estoy para salir. - I’m in the mood to leave.
Estoy por salir. - I’m about to leave.
¿Por qué estudias español? - For what reason you study Spanish?
Porque me gusta el idioma. Because I like the language.
¿Para qué estudias español? - For what purpose do you study Spanish?
Para poder viajar a España. To be able to travel to Spain.
I bought beer for my friends (in order to enjoy it together).
Compré cerveza por mis amigos (con el dinero que me dieron). I bought beer for my friends (with the money they gave me).
Hopefully this cleared up some of your confusion. Feel free to take a look at lessons on other Spanish Prepositions:
See you soon! ¡Hasta pronto!
Mauricio Evlampieff: Rocket Spanish
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