Quick Answer

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.

Perhaps one of the most challenging concepts for non-native Spanish-speakers to master is understanding when to use porand when to use para, both of which translate to for in English. However, when it comes to the Spanish por and para, you’re in luck! Below, we’ve prepared some quick tips for mastering the difference between these two tricky prepositions.

It’s More than a Translation

Even though your trusty Spanish-English dictionary will list for as the translation of both por and para, it’s important to understand that the difference between them is more nuanced. In the end, 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 Cecilia.
I am looking for that book for Cecilia.
Estoy buscando aquel libro por Cecilia.
I am looking for that book for Cecilia.

In the first sentence, the speaker is looking for that book to give it to Cecilia. In the second sentence, the speaker is looking for the book on behalf of Cecilia.

It’s a subtle difference, but understanding the slight difference in English will help you understand when to use por and when to use para in Spanish.

Understand Cause vs. Effect

A trick to understanding when to use por and when to use para is knowing which preposition is associated with a cause and which is associated with an effect. Por typically refers to an action’s cause while para refers to its 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, the word for has the same function as in the sentence "I am looking for that book." "Marisol" and the "book" are the effect of the situations.

Now, if Alvaro were to call in sick and you had to cover for him on a project, you would say:

Estoy trabajando por Álvaro.
I’m working for Alvaro.

In this instance, to say I am working for Alvaro is the same as I am working on behalf of Alvaro. Alvaro is the reason why—the cause—for you to be working. In summary, 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)?

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 two prepositions is that por refers to travel/motion through a place or location while 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 the destination—what we go to.

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.

Understanding por vs. para is one of the best ways to improve your Spanish proficiency. Keep these useful tips in mind and you will be on your way to having a better grasp of one of the more challenging concepts for non-native speakers!

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