por vs para spanish

Por vs Para: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding the Differences

Maria Claudia Alvarado Published on January 5, 2024

Spanish grammar can be tricky, especially when you can’t tell the difference between two words, like para and por! Most people think that para and por can be used interchangeably, but that’s not the case. Even though para and por both can translate to “for” in English, they aren’t always applied to point out a recipient.  

While this sounds confusing, it isn’t once you have a clear idea of the different uses and differences for para and por. If you want to participate in Spanish conversations and sound natural, you need to understand how to apply each and how they can change the meaning of your sentences. But don’t fret. In this article, I’ll tell you their different meanings and how to use each one. We’ll also look at some examples to help you master these two Spanish words.

Why are Por and Para Challenging for Spanish Learners?

Two Words for “For” in Spanish

It’s common for Spanish learners to struggle to understand the difference between por and para due to how close they seem to be in meaning. They both can translate to “for,” which can leave you wondering when it’s right to apply one or the other. However, it’s important to note that they don’t always translate to “for.” There are many uses for para and por, so their meaning depends on the context and intention with which you are using them.

Spanish Grammar and Prepositions

Por and para are two of the 23 Spanish prepositions you’ll encounter on your path to fluency. While this might seem like a lot, para and por are two of the most common, and understanding them can help you communicate with Spanish native speakers with confidence. Using prepositions allows us to speak with clarity and precision, and are very helpful in daily life. For example, the preposition con (with) helps explain who was with us or with what objects we performed an action, while en (in, on, about, at, or by) is used to describe where exactly something is placed.

In Spanish, we use prepositions to connect the noun, adjective, or verb to the object of the sentence. There are simple prepositions, which consist of a single word, and compound prepositions which are made of two. When we add a preposition to a sentence, we do it to offer more information about an action, place, object, person, or scenario. This is an easy way to make sure other Spanish native speakers understand what you are talking about.

Por vs Para: Differences Between Por and Para

Por and para are both Spanish prepositions that are often translated as “for.” They are placed in sentences to clarify time, place, and reason. However, it’s important to remember that por and para aren’t the same, and they shouldn’t be used arbitrarily.

While por can explain the cause of an action or decision, para tells us what was the purpose of an action. Likewise, you might notice that para tends to describe a destination, outcome, or recipient, while por talks about the medium and what and how long it took to get there.

Uses of Para

Para as Purpose

One of the most common uses for the word para is to talk about the purpose of an action. We use para in this context to justify an action or explain the objective. In this case, you can also find para translated as “to.” For example:

– Él compró una computadora para trabajar desde casa. / He bought a computer to work from home.

– Ustedes fueron a la universidad para convertirse en profesionales. / You went to college to become professionals.

– Nosotros viajamos a Paraguay para ver las cataratas. / We traveled to Paraguay to see the waterfalls.

Para as Destination

In Spanish, we use para to tell others where we’re heading. While this is a more informal use for para, it’s correct and common in daily conversations. When para is used to point out a destination, we can see it translated as “to.” Note that this isn’t the same as using para to indicate a recipient, which we’ll see further below. For example:

-¿Te vas para la casa de tu mamá? / Are you heading to your mom’s house?

– Me voy para Alemania. / I’m going to Germany.

– Viajamos para Chile. / We’re traveling to Chile.

Para as Opinion

When para is used to express an opinion, it often highlights where the opinion is coming from or, more exactly, who feels a certain way. This use is easy to understand if we think that para is replacing phrases like “in my opinion,” “to me” or “for me,” which are followed by a statement. Para can also be used to point out other people’s opinions when it’s placed before the subject like this, “Para ella, su perro era el más bonito” (For her, her dog was the prettiest). Here are some examples:

Para mí, no hay nada más gratificante que terminar un proyecto. / In my opinion, there’s nothing more rewarding than to finish a project.

Para mi madre, ponerse en riesgos innecesarios es algo tonto. / For my mother, putting yourself at unnecessary risk is something silly.

Para ti, todo es más fácil si has descansado lo suficiente. / For you, everything is easier if you have rested enough.

Para as Outcome

Understanding how to use para for this purpose is much easier if we think of how we describe our actions when we want to explain them to somebody else. For example, in English, you can say “I took an online course to learn French” which translates to, “Yo tomé un curso en línea para aprender francés.” In this case, the outcome of taking the online course is that you learned French. It’s a linear way to point out the expected outcome of a situation. Here, you can see para translated as “to.” These are some examples:

– Él le escribió a su amigo para disculparse. / He wrote to this friend to apologize.

– Los alumnos estudiaron para aprobar el exámen. / The students studied to pass the exam.

– Hice todo lo que pude para llegar al concierto a tiempo. / I did everything I could to arrive at the concert on time.

Para as Recipient

This is one of the most common uses for para and one of the easiest to understand. All you have to do is ask yourself who are you doing something for. You can use para to specify who you bought something for or who you are working for. In this case, para translates to “for.” Here are some examples:

– Nosotros compramos un regalo para nuestro abuelo. / We bought a gift for our grandfather.

– Tejí un suéter para el perro. / I knitted a sweater for the dog.

– Él tocó el piano para su madre. / He played the piano for his mother.

Uses of Por

Por as Cause

In Spanish, por is often used to explain the reason behind an action. It makes a lot of sense if we think about por qué (why) and porque (because). When por is used to explain a cause, you can find it translated to “because of” or “for.” For example, in the sentence, “Pospusimos el viaje por la lluvia” which translates to, “We postponed the trip because of the rain,” we can see that por is pointing to the reason why the trip had to be postponed (the rain) while the first half of the sentence indicates the consequence (the trip was postponed). On the other hand, if we were asked why the trip was postponed, we could answer with, “por la lluvia” (because of the rain).

Here are some more examples:

– Ellos evacuaron el edificio por el terremoto. / They evacuated the building because of the earthquake. 

– Yo cambié mis patines por una bicicleta. / I traded my skates for a bicycle.

– Ella obtuvo una beca por ser una buena estudiante. / She got a scholarship for being a good student.

Por as Through, By, or Along

When we apply por in this context, we can specify the direction or location of something or someone. You can use por to describe the movement “along” something or somewhere. If you want to point out that you traveled “through” somewhere, you can use por to specify the places you crossed in your trip. Last, por can translate to “by” when used in informal sentences to explain that something or someone is nearby. Here are some examples:

– El caminón pasa por el túnel. / The truck goes through the tunnel.

– Ellos vieron al vecino montar a caballo por la orilla del río. / They saw the neighbor ride a horse along the river bank. 

– ¿Dejaste el libro por el teléfono? / Did you leave the book by the phone?

Por as On Behalf of

You might find por translated as “on behalf of” or “instead of” whenever the sentence informs about an action performed by someone who’s doing it for somebody else. Do not confuse this use of por with de parte de, a common Spanish expression used for a similar purpose. Unlike de parte de, when por is used as “on behalf” it is strictly talking about replacing somebody. For example:

– Ella mandó los documentos por su padre. / She sent the documents on behalf of her father.

– Él se rompió una pierna, así que su primo corrió por él en la carrera. / He broke a leg, so his cousin ran the race on his behalf.

– Yo podría responder la pregunta por tí si lo necesitas. / I could answer the question on your behalf if you need it.

Por as By a Medium

In this case, por helps us clarify the medium through which we act. This is a very common use for por, and you can find it in sentences that talk about traveling, talking on the phone, sending an e-mail, and much more. Here are some examples:

– Ellos viajaron a Chile por avión. / They traveled to Chile by plane.

– Nosotros hablamos por teléfono todos los días. / We talked on the phone every day.

– Yo te mandé las fotos por e-mail. / I sent you the pictures by e-mail.

Por as Quantity of Time or Time of Day

Finally, por can also be used to indicate when an action took place and how long it took us. When por is used in this context, you can find it translated as “during” or “for.” These are some examples:

– Estudie por ocho horas para aprobar el exámen de alemán. / I studied for eight hours to pass the German exam.

– Oímos truenos por la noche. / We heard thunder during the night.

– Ella pensó en el perro perdido por meses. / She thought about the lost dog for months.

Differences Between Por and Para

Reason vs Purpose

We use por to explain the reason why we performed an action, and para to specify the purpose or the logic behind it. The words reason and purpose have similar meanings, and they might make telling par and por apart even more confusing, so first you need to understand what’s the difference between both. Reason is what motivates an action. It’s possible to have many reasons to do something but, often, there’s only one goal. The goal of an action is the purpose. 

In Spanish, we use para for purposes, and por for reasons. For example:

-Viaje a los Estados Unidos para visitar a mi tía. / I traveled to the United States to visit my aunt.

In this sentence, para explains the purpose of the trip to the United States. The use of para is correct in this sentence because it tells us what was the main goal of the action. While one could argue that it’s also possible to say that this was a reason for traveling, here the sentence is indicating that it was the main reason, so it’s the purpose.

However, it’s also possible to find por used in a similar context:

-Viaje a los Estados Unidos por negocios. / I traveled to the United States for business.

In this sentence, por points out the reason for the action of traveling. Remember that the difference between purpose and reason is that reason explains what motivated an action. In this case, the desire to settle a business was what caused the trip to the United States.

Traveling vs Final Destination

This one can be tricky, especially if you’re a beginner Spanish student. We use por to describe movement and para to pinpoint our destination. For example, you can say, “Me voy para Paraguay por bus” which means, “I’m going to Paraguay by bus.”Note that por is explaining how we are getting “by” and para is showing where we are going “to.”

Duration vs Deadlines

We use para for deadlines, while por indicates the duration of an action. Both can translate to “for” in this case but don’t fret. This is a common misconception that can make things messy, but the answer is way simpler than it looks. Por can be used as “for” when talking about duration, but is most frequently used as “during.” For example, you can say, “Trabajé por la noche y tuve el trabajo listo para la hora de junta” which means, “I worked during the night and had the work ready for the meeting.” This is an easy trick that can help you structure your ideas with confidence and tell por and para apart without struggles.

“By” Someone vs “For” Someone

You might have an easier time understanding how to use para and por in this context if you think about writing poems. To let someone know that you wrote a poem, you would write “by….” Now, if you wanted someone to know that you wrote it specifically for them, you would add a note with “for….” This is exactly how we use por and para in Spanish. We use para to point out who we’re doing something for and por to let others know who executed an action.

Common Expressions That Use Por and Para

Expressions with Por

Many common expressions use por, and learning how to use at least a few of them can help your Spanish sound more natural. You might have already heard Spanish native speakers say “por supuesto” (of course) or “¡por fin!” (finally!), but there are other sayings that also use por. These are some of them:

Por las puras: This phrase literally translates to “by pure” but we actually use it as “for nothing.” Spanish speakers say this phrase when they want to express that they feel something is pointless. 

-Dar por sentado: This phrase translates to “give it for seating” but we use it as “taken for granted.” We use this saying to warn others that they have big expectations about something that hasn’t come to fruition yet. Note that it’s used for scenarios rather than for people.

Expressions with Para

Para is used in lots of Spanish expressions, some of which are easier to understand than others. If you’ve been around Spanish speakers, you might have heard them say, “para nada” (for nothing/no way). Or, you might have heard, “para que veas” (so you can see). There are many ways you can use para in colloquial Spanish phrases. Here are two more examples:

Para variar: this translates to “for variety.” However, we use it to indicate the opposite. Spanish speakers say “para variar” when someone or something hasn’t changed their way of acting at all.

Para colmo: this phrase literally translates to “to top” and it means something similar in Spanish. We use it to express that, “on top of everything else,” something else has happened.

Tips for Remembering Por and Para

The first thing you need to do to use por and para correctly is to have a clear idea of what you want to communicate. Sometimes, a small detail in the intention of our sentence can change our need for para or por, so it’s important to know what we want to say beforehand to avoid common mistakes. Para normally involves a destiny (for someone, to arrive somewhere, to finish something, to get something) so think about it as the end of a journey.

On the other hand, por often describes the journey itself (the duration, the places you travel through, the reason why you are traveling, and who is traveling). Keep in mind that the best way to familiarize yourself with these two words is to practice reading Spanish texts. There are many ways to practice Spanish, so make sure you’re using resources you enjoy and find engaging.

Final Thoughts

From my experience, one of the best ways to learn Spanish is to practice constantly and immerse yourself in it. If you want to become fluent in Spanish, you need to be able to use por and para with confidence. There are many ways to study Spanish that can help you develop your vocabulary and grammar, including using Spanish textbooks or online Spanish courses. You can focus on the basic rules, and combine different resources to create a more comprehensive language learning experience. Telling the difference between por and para can be hard at the beginning, but with practice and patience, you’ll master it before you know it!

Maria Claudia Alvarado

Maria Alvarado is a content writer and translator from Lima, Peru. She graduated from the Savannah College of Arts and Design in 2017 with a Bachelor’s degree in Writing. She is fluent in Spanish and English, has intermediate knowledge of French and German, and is learning Japanese. She hopes to bring consciousness about the importance of language learning through her articles and aspires to learn as many languages as possible.

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