Taking the Confusion out of 'Por' and 'Para'

Both common prepositions can mean 'for'

Gijón
Anduve por la calles de Gijón. (I walked through the streets of Gijón.). Manuel Martín Vicente/Flickr/Creative Commons

Two Spanish prepositions, por and para, are usually used for the English word "for." The differences between them sometimes are subtle, and thus por and para are a constant source of confusion for Spanish students.

Think of Meaning Rather than Translation

If it's any consolation, prepositions can be as difficult for people learning English. Why do we sometimes say something is under control, and sometimes say something is in control? Why are we in the house but at home? The rules sometimes escape logic.

The key to understanding which preposition to use is to think of the meaning you want to convey. If I use a phrase such as "three for a dollar" in English, the "for" has a different meaning than it does in "this book is for you." In the first case, "for" indicates an exchange or a rate, while in the second case it indicates an intention or direction. Thus the Spanish translation of the two phrases are different, "tres por un dólar" and "este libro es para ti."

The following chart shows some of the major uses of these two prepositions, including ones not translated by "for."

Uses for Por

Por is often used to indicate how something is done or ihe cause of an action. Although the distinction between cause and outcome isn't always clear, por generally isn't used to indicate the result of an action.

  • Expressing movement along, through, around, by, or about: Anduve por las calles de Gijón. (I walked through the streets of Gijón.) Viajamos por Australia con un Land Rover. (We traveled around Australia with a Land Rover.)
  • Denoting a time or duration when something occurs. Viajamos por tres semanas. (We're traveling for three weeks.) Debes pensar en otras personas por sólo un momento. (You ought to think about other people for just a moment.)
  • Expressing the cause (not the purpose) of an action: Me caí por la nieve. (I fell down because of the snow.) Los conflictos originaron por las diferencias culturales e ideológicas. (The conflicts began because of the cultural and ideological differences.) Hay diferencia entre comer por hambre y comer por placer. (There is a difference between eating out of hunger and eating for pleasure.)
  • Meaning per: Dos por ciento. (Two percent.) Prefiero comer cuatro comidas por día. (I prefer eating four meals per day.) Por can also be translated as "a" when "a" is a preposition: Leo un libro por semana. (I read one book a week.)
  • Meaning supporting or in favor of: Trabajamos por derechos humanos. (We work for human rights.) No puedo votar por el presidente. (I can't vote for the president.)
  • Introducing the agent of an action after a passive verb:. For this reason, por is often used in stating the author of a book or other composition: Fue escrito por Bob Woodward. (It was written by Bob Woodward.) Será comido por las aves. (It will be eaten by the birds.)
  • Indicating means of transportation: Viajaré por avión. (I will travel by plane.) Quiero llegar a Venezuela por barco. (I want to arrive at Venezuela by ship.)
  • Used in numerous expressions: Por ejemplo. (For example.) Por favor. (Please, literally as a favor.)

Uses for Para

Para is often used to indicate the outcome of an action or to indicate who or what is affected by an action.

  • Meaning for the purpose of or in order to: Para bailar la bamba, necesita una poca de gracia. (In order to dance the bamba you need a little grace.) Los buses se usan para ir a la frontera. (The buses are used for going to the border.)
  • With a noun or pronoun as object, meaning for the benefit of or directed to: Es para usted. It's for you. Necesitamos mucho dinero para el desarrollo del país. (We need a lot of money for the country's development.)
  • Meaning to or in the direction of when referring to a place: Voy para Europa. (I'm heading to Europe.) Salimos para el almuerzo. (We are leaving for lunch.)
  • Meaning by or for when referring to a specific time: Necesito el regalo para mañana. (I need the gift for tomorrow.) Vamos a la casa de mi madre para el fin de semana. (We're going to my mother's for the weekend.)

Key Takeaways

  • Although both Spanish prepositions por and para can often be translated as "for," they have separate meanings and can seldom be used as synonyms.
  • Por is often used to indicate who performs an action or the reason for it being performed.
  • Para is often used to indicate the result of an action being performed.