How to Use “Por” and “Para” Like a Native
Are you having the “Por and Para Syndrome”?
Are these two little prepositions rocking your boat?
Well I am glad you’ve found this post, because we’ll lead you to some smooth sailing straight ahead.
Por and para are two seemingly nice words which my first student some 12 years ago called “the two ugliest children the Spanish language could have ever had.” Rude!
The problem comes from the fact that both por and para can be translated as “for” in English, and while a native speaker of Spanish will automatically know which of them has to be used in a specific situation, that’s simply not the case for English speakers.
So I will tell you flat out, por and para are difficult—especially when you deal with them for the first time. Once you really master them, you can safely say you are a top-notch, advanced Spanish student with a lot of patience and a great capacity for grammar.
But since you are reading this, I guess you still need that final push to wake up your language awesomeness.
I cannot promise that we won’t hit any waves or experience some winds, but I am completely sure that by the end of this post you will be able to see and understand the difference between, say, ¿Por qué vas? and ¿Para qué vas?, or the difference between por mí and para mí at the beginning and end of a sentence.
For those of you out there wondering if there is any sense in learning these two words, I can tell you that por and para are so important and so commonly used that it would be nonsensical not to give them a try.
At the end of the day, you are all here because you want to improve your Spanish, so why directly avoid them when you could just use that precious time to learn and understand them?
If you don’t believe me, take a look at what happened to Michael a few days ago…
Why You Must Learn When to Use Por and Para
The last time we visited our friend Michael, he was doing pretty well. He had been learning Spanish for a few months (with plenty of slip-ups, as expected), gotten the girl of his dreams and was on the right path to sounding like a native.
Then about a week ago he was having a romantic dinner with Maite when he said:
Limpié la casa por ti.
Maite, now very angry, threw a plate of spaghetti at him and left.
Michael was completely lost. He thought he had done something nice for his lovely girlfriend, and it turned out that for the second time in a few months, a misunderstanding had come between them just because of the language barrier.
Talk about drama in telenovelas (soap operas)!
If you want to know why Maite left so abruptly, and what Michael should have said so that his sentence wasn’t so out of place, read on.
You will be very surprised at the power of a three-letter preposition!
So there’s certainly a difference between por and para, I think we’ve established that. In fact, por and para have very few, if any, uses that can be confused because of their proximity.
Generally speaking, the main difference between por and para is that por is normally used to express some kind of movement through space or time, while para is used to indicate goals and destinations.
But this is just the general rule!
The best way to really learn the difference between them is by analyzing their different, specific uses, and by reading a lot of examples.
And this is exactly what we’re going to do in this post.
Let’s start with two examples that demonstrate that por and para are actually two sides of the same coin, virtually never interchangeable.
1. Para mí vs. Por mí
Para mí and por mí are very special because they not only have a difference in meaning, but they themselves also change meanings depending on where you put them in a sentence.
On the one hand, para mí at the beginning of a sentence means “in my opinion.” Have a look at some examples:
Para mí, ese niño es muy inteligente. (In my opinion, that boy is very intelligent.)
Para mí, la sopa está fría. (In my opinion, the soup is cold.)
Para mí que está cansado. (In my opinion, he is tired.)
When added at the end of a sentence, para mí changes its meaning to “for me” (in contexts when we receive something):
Este regalo es para mí. (This present is for me.)
La sorpresa es para mí. (The surprise is for me.)
El café también es para mí. (The coffee is also for me.)
On the other hand, por mí at the beginning of a sentence means “as far as I am concerned” or “as for me,” and it adds a sense of indifference to the whole:
Por mí como si no vuelve. (As for me, he may well never come back.) [and I don’t care.]
Por mí que se vaya ya. (As for me, he can go already.) [I don’t mind his leaving.]
Por mí que lo metan en la cárcel. (As far as I am concerned, they can put him in jail.)
Notice how in the previous three sentences both the indicate and subjunctive have been used. This has nothing to do with por mí, though.
As you may already know, que very often triggers the subjunctive in Spanish:
Quiero que vengas. (I want you to come.)
No necesitaba que vinieras. (I didn’t need you to come.)
Likewise, como si normally triggers the imperfect subjunctive:
Se comporta como si tuviera cinco años. (He behaves as if he were five.)
Hazlo como si fuera para ti. (Do it as if it were for you.)
However, como si is followed by the indicative when we want to express indifference, which may explain why it is so commonly preceded by por mí:
Por mí como si se queda embarazada. (As for me, she can get pregnant.) [I don’t really care.]
Por mí como si me ignora para siempre. (As for me, he can ignore me forever.) [I don’t care at all.]
Finally, por mí at the end of a sentence loses its indifference, and it comes to mean “instead of me,” “in my place” or “for me.” (with the meaning of “for my sake”):
Lo compró por mí. (He bought it in my place.)
Irá de compras por mí. (He will go shopping in my place.)
Me dijo la verdad por mí. (He told me the truth for my sake.)
So if we take another look at what Michael said to Maite, we will be able to understand why she got mad and left:
Limpié la casa por ti. (I cleaned the house in your place.) This means that Maite should have done it, but Michael did it instead.
No wonder she was angry! Michael used por instead of para, and what came out of his mouth was a very chauvinistic sentence—or at least Maite interpreted it that way.
If he had used the proper preposition, Maite would have been very glad for sure:
Limpié la casa para ti. (I cleaned the house for you.)
2. ¿Para qué? vs. ¿Por qué?
Para qué and por qué are not as potentially dangerous as para mí and por mí, but they also have a difference in meaning.
We already got to know ¿Por qué? from the Four Porques post, and it means “Why?” or “For what reason?”
¿Por qué no me hablas? (Why don’t you talk to me?)
¿Por qué has venido tan temprano? (Why have you come so early?)
On the other hand, we use para qué when we want to ask for what purpose something was done:
¿Para qué has comprado eso? (What have you bought that for?)
¿Para qué vienes? (For what purpose are you coming?)
You may think that their meaning is too close, even related, since asking for a reason and asking for a purpose are definitely connected. However, there are examples when it is very obvious that you absolutely need to use the right one.
¿Por qué no? (Why not?) vs. ¿Para qué no?
¿Para qué no? is a question that follows a negative statement or command. For example:
Maite: No uses eso para comer (Don’t use that for eating.)
Michael: ¿Para qué no debo usarlo? No te he oído. (What shouldn’t I use it for? I didn’t hear you.)
Now that it’s clear that por and para are indeed different, let’s have a look at them in depth.
In the following sections you will find the different uses of these two prepositions, along with dozens of examples to make it really clear.
Uses of Para
We have already seen a couple of examples of the uses of para, but what are the rest of them? We use para in Spanish in the following contexts:
1. To indicate that someone (or something) is the recipient of something
Esto es para ti. (This is for you.)
La más grande es para vosotros. (The biggest one is for you guys.)
Franko escribe para FluentU. (Franko writes for FluentU.)
2. To indicate destination (normally when talking about travel)
Salimos para Barcelona mañana. (We are leaving for Barcelona tomorrow.)
El tren salió para Madrid. (The train left for Madrid.)
Salgo para Polonia en cinco minutos. (I leave for Poland in five minutes.)
3. To express a future time limit or deadline
Necesito el coche de vuelta para el martes. (I need the car back by Tuesday.)
Haz esto para el lunes. (Do this by Monday.)
Prepara el vocabulario para la semana que viene. (Prepare the vocabulary for next week.)
4. With the meaning of “to,” “in order to” and “so as to”
Estudio español para conseguir un trabajo mejor. (I am studying Spanish in order to get a better job.)
Bebo agua para estar sano. (I drink water to be healthy.)
Viajé a Londres para mejorar mi inglés. (I traveled to London in order to improve my English.)
5. In comparisons, to differentiate someone or something from others in its group
Está muy alto para tener seis años. (He is very tall for a six-year-old.)
Para su edad es ya es muy lista. (She is already very clever for her age.)
Para ser escritor no lees mucho. (For a writer you don’t read much.)
6. With the meaning of “for the purpose of” or “intended for”
¿Para qué vas? (What are you going for?)
Esta lámpara es para el baño. (This lamp is for (intended for) the bathroom.)
Esta copa es para vino. (This glass is for wine.)
7. When an action is about to happen or about to be finished:
Está para llover. (It is about to rain.)
Estamos para irnos. (We are about to leave.)
La película está para terminar. (The film is about to finish.)
Notice that in Latin America, por is used instead of para in this context.
Apart from these uses, there are some idiomatic expressions that always use para and are translated in a specific way. The following are the most common ones:
Para siempre (forever): Estaremos juntos para siempre. (We will be together forever.)
Para arriba (up, upward, upstairs): Sube para arriba y espérame allí. (Go upstairs and wait for me there.) – The expression para arriba is mainly used in Spain. In Latin America, the preposition para is commonly omitted. However, you will often hear the expression pa’rriba (up, upward) in very informal contexts.
Para abajo (down, downward, downstairs): De la cintura para abajo, el vestido es muy bonito. (The dress is very pretty from the waist down.)
Para delante (forward): Muévete para delante porque no puedo ver nada. (Move forward because I can’t see a thing.)
Para atrás (backwards): ¡Échate para atrás! (Back off!)
Para entonces (by that time): Para entonces ya era muy famoso. (He was very famous by that time.)
Para variar (for a change): Podrías decir la verdad para variar. (You could tell the truth for a change.)
Ser tal para cual (to be two of a kind): Michael y Maite son tal para cual. Siempre están escuchando música. (Michael and Maite are two of a kind. They are always listening to music.)
Uses of Por
Por has a few more uses than para, but they are also very specific. Use por in the following situations:
1. With the meaning of “because of”
No fuimos al parque por la lluvia. (We did not go to the park because of the rain.)
Llegué tarde por tu culpa. (I came late because of you.)
Ganó el campeonato por su resistencia. (He won the championship because of his stamina.)
2. To express frequency and velocity
Voy al cine dos veces por semana. (I go to the cinema twice a week.)
Me pagan cuatro veces por mes. (They pay me four times a month.)
Michael está conduciendo a 80 millas por hora. (Michael is driving at 80 miles an hour.)
3. To express gratitude or apology
Muchas gracias por todo. (Thank you very much for everything.)
Perdona por llegar tarde. (Sorry for being late.)
¡Gracias por las flores! (Thanks for the flowers!)
4. Followed by an infinitive, to express that an action has not been carried out yet
Los platos aún están por ser fregados. (The dishes are yet to be washed.)
La habitación aún está por ser ordenada. (The room is yet to be tidied up.)
Todavía tengo dos libros por leer. (I still have two books to read.)
5. When talking about sales and exchanges
Los compré por 50 dólares. (I bought them for 50 dollars.)
Quiero cambiar esta camisa por una roja. (I want to exchange this shirt for a red one.)
Te lo puedo vender por 10 euros. (I can sell it to you for 10 euros.)
6. With means of communication and transportation
Bear in mind that even though it is correct to use por with means of transportation, the preferred preposition is en.
Siempre viajo por tren. (I always travel by train.)
Te lo enviaré por fax. (I will send it to you by fax.)
Te lo explicaré por email. (I will explain it to you by email.)
7. With the meaning of “for,” “on behalf of” and “instead of”
Lo hice por ti. (I did it on your behalf.)
Regué las flores por ti. (I watered the plants for you.) [on your behalf]
Mis padres fueron a Italia por nosotros porque teníamos mucho trabajo. (My parents went to Italy instead of us because we had a lot of work.)
8. For divisions and multiplications
Diez por diez son cien. (Ten times ten equals one hundred.)
Sesenta dividido por dos son treinta. (Sixty divided by two equals thirty.)
9. With the meaning of “along,” “through,” “by” or “in the area of” (normally with verbs of movement and physical transition)
Me gusta viajar por Europa. (I like traveling through Europe.)
Tiró la pelota por la ventana. (He threw the ball through the window.)
A ella le gusta pasear por la orilla del mar. (She likes walking along the seashore.)
10. To express the duration of an action
Estuve estudiando por dos horas. (I was studying for two hours.)
Fuimos a España por tres días. (We went to Spain for three days.)
He estado trabajando de camarero por cinco años. (I have been working as a waiter for five years.)
11. With parts of the day, with the meaning of “during” or “in”
Por la mañana voy a la escuela. (I go to school in the morning.)
Por la tarde veo la TV. (I watch TV in the afternoon.)
Por la noche duermo. (I sleep at night.)
12. Used with estar, with the meaning of “to be in the mood” or “to feel like”
Estoy por pedir pizza. (I feel like ordering pizza.)
Estamos por irnos a dormir. (We feel like going to sleep.)
Estoy por escuchar música. (I am in the mood for listening to music.)
As it happened with para, we have some idiomatic expressions that use por all the time.
There are quite a few por idiomatic expressions, but these are the most common ones:
Por lo menos (at least): Por lo menos no estoy solo. (At least I am not alone.)
Por los pelos (barely – lit. by the hairs): Llegué a tiempo por los pelos. (I barely arrived on time.)
Por lo mismo (for that very reason): Por lo mismo no te lo dije. (I did not tell you for that very reason.)
Por adelantado (in advance): Tienes que pagar por adelantado. (You must pay in advance.)
Por lo tanto (therefore): …por lo tanto la respuesta es No. (…therefore the answer is no.)
Por ahora (for now): No tengo nada que decir por ahora. (I have nothing to say for now.)
Por lo visto (apparently): Por lo visto es enfermera. (Apparently she is a nurse.)
Por lo que a mí me toca (as far as I am concerned): Por lo que a mí me toca, el mayor problema es el idioma. (As far as I am concerned, the biggest problem is the language.)
Por ahí (around there): Debe estar por ahí. (It should be around there.)
Palabra por palabra (word for word): Tuve que repetirlo palabra por palabra. (I had to repeat it word for word.)
Por + adjetivo + que sea (however + adjective + it is): Por sano que sea, no quiero comerlo. (However healthy it is, I don’t want to eat it.)
Por lo que he oído (judging by/according to what I have heard): Por lo que he oído no es de España. (Judging by what I have heard she is not from Spain.)
¡Por el amor de Dios! (For the love of God!)
Por aquí (this way): Podemos ir por aquí. (We can go this way.)
Por mi parte (for my part): Por mi parte, prometo volver pronto. (For my part, I promise to come back soon.)
Por medio de (by means of): Por medio de este artículo podrás aprender a usar por y para. (By means of this article you will learn how to use por and para.)
Por casualidad (by chance): Lo encontré por casualidad. (I found it by chance.)
Por completo (completely): Lo había olvidado por completo. (I had completely forgotten about it.)
Por cierto (by the way): Por cierto, ¿tienes más café? (By the way, do you have more coffee?)
Por ciento (percent): El treinta por ciento de la gente no votó. (Thirty percent of the people did not vote.)
Por motivo de (on account of): No fuimos por motivo de la lluvia. (We did not go on account of the rain.)
Por ningún lado (nowhere/anywhere): No lo encuentro por ningún lado. (I can’t find it anywhere.)
Por un lado / por una parte (on the one hand): Por un lado, ya es muy tarde. (On the one hand, it is already too late.)
Por otro lado / por otra parte (on the other hand): Por otro lado, está lloviendo. (On the other hand, it is raining.)
Por eso (that’s why, therefore): Por eso no puedes ir a la fiesta. (That’s why you cannot go to the party.)
Por poco (almost): Por poco me caigo. (I almost fell.)
Por desgracia (unfortunately): Por desgracia ya se ha ido. (Unfortunately he has already gone.)
Por ejemplo (for example): Tienes varias opciones. Por ejemplo, puedes ir en coche. (You have different options. For example, you can go by car.)
Por supuesto (of course): Por supuesto que te quiero. (Of course I love you.)
Por favor (please): La cuenta, por favor. (The bill, please.)
Por suerte (fortunately): Por suerte estabas allí. (Fortunately you were there.)
Por si acaso (just in case): Lo compré por si acaso lo necesitabas. (I bought it just in case you needed it.)
Por las buenas o por las malas (whether you like it or not): Irás al dentista por las buenas o por las malas. (You will go to the dentist whether you like it or not.)
Por separado (separately): No se venden por separado. (They are not sold separately.)
Por escrito (in writing): Lo necesito por escrito. (I need it in writing.)
Por primera/última vez (for the first / last time): Te lo digo por última vez. (I am telling you this for the last time.)
Por todas partes/por todos lados (everywhere): Los juguetes están por todas partes. (The toys are everywhere.)
Por lo demás (apart from that): Por lo demás no tienes que hacer nada más, (Apart from that you don’t have to do anything else.)
Por lo general (generally): Por lo general no como plátanos. (I generally don’t eat bananas.)
Por último (finally – in a series of events or steps): Por último, añade la leche. (Finally, add the milk.)
Por fin (finally – when you were expecting something): ¡Por fin ha llegado! (He has finally arrived!)
I know there are a lot of them, but they are not difficult at all.
Besides, almost all of these phrases are used on a daily basis both in Spanish and in English, so learning them will really come in handy.
Take you time to read through the post again and let the information sink in.
The sun will warm, the winds will calm down, and it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out—until you tackle your next topic to keep advancing in Spanish.