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In any language, prepositions seem to have no logic to them. Often, the rules just have to be memorized. For example, in English, we say at home vs. in the house.
Besides the subjunctive mood, perhaps one of the most challenging concepts for non-native Spanish speakers to master is understanding when to use por and when to use para – both translating to for in English. However, when it comes to the Spanish por and para, you’re in luck! There are multiple rules to help you know which one to use.
1. It’s more than a translation
Even though your trusty Spanish-English dictionary will list for as the definition of both por and para, their use goes well beyond the direct English translation. It’s all about context. Even in English, while we may use for in multiple instances, it can convey a different meaning.
Estoy buscando aquel libro para ti. (I am looking for that book for you.)
Estoy buscando aquel libro por ti. (I am looking for that book for you.)
In the first sentence, I am looking for that book to give it to you. In the second sentence, I am looking for that book on your behalf (because you may be too busy to go to the bookstore).
It’s a subtle difference, but understanding this in English will help you understand when to use por and when to use para in Spanish.
2. Understand Cause vs. Effect
A trick to understanding when to use por and when to use para is knowing which is associated with cause and which is associated with effect.
por → cause
para → effect
This might be a little confusing at first so let’s use some examples.
Imagine you’re working at a company with Alvaro, and you both have the same boss, Marisol. To talk about your boss, you would both say:
Trabajo para Marisol. (I work for Marisol.)
In this instance, to say I work for Marisol means the same thing as saying I am looking for that book. Marisol and the book are the effect of the situations.
Now, if Alvaro was to call in sick and you had to cover for him on a project, you would say:
Trabajo por Alvaro. (I work for/on behalf of Alvaro.)
In this instance, to say I work for Alvaro is the same as I am looking on behalf of you. Alvaro is the reason why, the cause, for you to be working. In general, para is used when a statement calls for in order to and por is used when a statement calls for on behalf of. This might be a little difficult to understand at first, but just think about why the action is occurring. Are you working to produce results for your boss (para)? Or are you working on behalf of your sick coworker (por)?
3. Differentiate Travel vs. Destination
In Spanish, por and para can be used to describe travel or motion. A simple rule to remember when to use the the two propositions is:
Por refers to travel/motion through a place or location.
Para refers to the destination of a journey.
Salimos por la puerta. (We left through the door.)
Viajamos para el Caribe. (We travel to the Caribbean.)
In the first example, la puerta is how we go to the destination – what we go through. In the second example, el caribe is my destination – what we go to.
4. Know Duration vs. Deadline
This is probably the easiest rule to master. When talking about how long it took to accomplish something, or how long it took to go somewhere, use por. But when talking about a deadline for an action, use para.
Conduje por dos horas. (I drove for two hours.)
Estos deberes son para el lunes. (This homework is for Monday.)
Whether it’s doing homework, driving, walking, or traveling, whenever a statement refers to duration, use por. When a statement refers to a deadline, use para.
5. Review the first four rules!
Understanding por vs. para is one of the best ways to improve your Spanish proficiency. With these rules, you will for sure be on your way to having a better grasp of one of the more challenging concepts for non-native speakers.