Por vs para

The only guide you need

Por and para are the bane of many a Spanish student’s life. Why?

Simply put, both of these words can translate to “for” in English. Just like the Spanish subjunctive and the concept of gender, concepts which don’t directly correspond to English can be tough to grasp.

In this guide, we’ll explore the underlying meaning of por vs para, we’ll look at their unique uses, and we’ll provide plenty of exercises so that you can go forth into the world with no fear…

Rob Ashby
The Spanish Obsessive

A quick history lesson

It’s worth remembering that por was first on the scene. This came from the Latin pro, meaning “for”, “on behalf of”. It’s thought that para was then formed from the original por + a.

Aside from being an interesting factoid, this helps us to understand a little about the difference between these words:

We could say that para is por + direction towards.

This is the first concept that will help you understand these two words.

Por vs para in one image

Here’s another key that will help you understand this concept:

 

This image was first used by Whitley and González, in “Gramática para la composición”, 2000 (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press)

What does this show us?

Por takes us “through”, and “among”. It’s vague.

Para takes us “toward” some goal. It’s definite.

As we work through the various uses and sentences of por and para, remember the above visualisation, and try to fit in those meanings with this concept.

3 key uses of por and para

This image will help us as we look at por and para in three dimensions: Location, time, and people/things:

 

1. Location

This is the easiest to understand, as our image is very helpful in visualising the difference between these two prepositions. Por indicates going “through”, “around”, “across”, and other variations; para focuses on the destination, and could be translated as “towards”, “to”, and similar:

 

PorPara
Vamos por las calles de la ciudad

“We’re going along the streets of the city”

Voy para tu casa

“I’m going to (towards) your house”

El agua está por todo el suelo

“The water’s all over (all around) the floor”

El agua va para el cuarto

“The water’s going towards the bedroom”

Está por aquí

“It’s around here”

 

2. Time

With time, por takes us “through” time, so becomes duration (for five days, for example). With para we’re going “towards” some goal – an endpoint or deadline:

 

PorPara
Por la tarde

During the afternoon”

Lo quiero para la tarde

“I want it for this afternoon” (indicating a deadline)

Se quedó con nosotros por cinco días

“He/she stayed with us for five days”

 

3. People and things

This is where it gets a little trickier. It’s easiest to think of para as the “goal”, and por covering everything else. We could think of para as “for the benefit of”, and por as “because of”, or “in exchange for”. Let’s look at some examples:

 

PorPara
Lo hice por ti

“I did it because of you”

Lo hice para ti

“I did it for you (for your benefit)”

Necesito mucho dinero por mi carro

“I need a lot of money in exchange for my car”

OR

“I need a lot of money because of my car”

Necesito mucho dinero para mi carro

“I need a lot of money for my car”

(i.e, the car will benefit from my money)

Uses of para

Remember the image? Para generally denotes direction towards a goal:

Purpose, destination, intention (“in order to”):
Es para ti: It’s for you
Para hacerlo, tienes que… To do it, you have to…

“Towards”
Vamos para la casa: We’re going home (towards home)

Express opinions
Para mi, no es buena idea: For me, it’s not a good idea

With time phrases:
Tienes que estar listo para las 4pm: You have to be ready for/by 4pm

Para can be used before verbs, meaning “in order to…” (or, effectively, just “to”):

Para hacerlo bien: [In order] to do it well

Para llegar, tienes que tomar el bus: [In order] to arrive, you have to take the bus

Uses of por

Por, as we saw in the image, shows direction through, via, and among. It is generally a bit vaguer than para, and can often be replaced by other prepositions (such as hacia, entre, durante, etc). Therefore, por has a wider range of uses than para:

Because of:
Eso pasó por tu culpa: That happened because of your fault
Por eso… That’s why (“because of that”)

In exchange for:
Te cambio este por otroI’ll change you this one for another

“By” a person:
100 años de soledad fue escrito por Gabriel Garcia Marquez: 100 Years of Solitude was written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“By” a type of transport:
Por avion: By plane

“By means of”:
Por telefono: By phone
Por la radio: Over the radio

“Along” and “through”:
Vamos por la calle: We’re going along the street
Está por aquí… It’s around/through here

“For the sake of”:
Por molestar: For the sake of annoying [someone]

Comer por comer: To eat for the sake of eating

Periods of the day:
Por la noche: At night/during the night
Por la tarde: In/during the afternoon

“For” a period of time:
Por 2 horas: For 2 hours
Por un momento: For a moment

Por is also used after a lot of verbs:

Comenzar por: To start with
Preguntar por: To ask about
Votar por: To vote for

We won’t go into all of these verbs in this guide, but it’s worth remembering that unlike por, para rarely follows a verb.

Phrases which illustrate the difference between por and para

Spanish learners often get confused when they hear por and para used with the same words. Looking at these phrases really shows the difference in meaning between por and para:

Por qué vs para qué

Por qué means “because of what” (or, more commonly, “why”), whereas para qué means “to do what” (or, “in order to what…?”). These are similar, but there is an important difference.

Por mí vs para mí

Por mí best translates as “because of me” (although, this depends on the context); para mi means “for me” (i.e. “for my benefit”)

Este tren va por Castellón vs este tren va para Castellón

Este tren va por Castellón means “this train goes via Castellón”; este tren va para Castellón indicates the goal, or endpoint, so means “this train goes to [ie, its destination is] Castellón”.

Exercises

Try these exercises to check your por vs para mastery!