The difference between “por” and “para” has been troubling Spanish learners since the dawn of time. If you are a Spanish student, you definitely know what I’m talking about. In fact, most Spanish learners continue to struggle with these two tiny P words even after years of study, so I suggest that you keep this post handy for future reference. Because today, I’m going to break down por vs. para for you, once and for all.
First, let’s consider that “por” and “para” can mean many different things in English, one of the meanings is “for”, but they can also mean “by”, “through”, or even “to”. Before focusing on different situations in which you would use one or the other, let’s talk about one of the most important things that you have to understand in order to logically choose the correct word: timelines.
I hate rote memorization. Personally, I’m the worst at this and I think that there are much better ways to learn Spanish.
Using the timeline method, students should be able to tell when to use por vs. para without having to memorize lists of random situations. But remember: this is not a rule, it is a technique.
Now let’s get down to business. Organizing the timeline is extremely important to understand grammar tenses, but also to understand when to use por vs. para. One of the main uses for these words is to refer to the reasons behind why we do things.
We will use “por” if the reasons happen prior to the action; and we will use “para” if those reasons are goals of the action. In other words, “por” sentences can often be phrased with “because” while “para” sentences can be phrased with “in order to” or “intended to”.
Notice that both sentences give basically the same information. However, one gives a prior reason 1) “Josefa was having problems with her neighbors, then she left”; while the other refers to what will happen after the action is performed 2) “Josefa left and then she will stop having problems with the neighbors”.
As you noticed in the example, the difference is less in the meaning and more in the “phrasing”. Most sentences that use “para” can be paraphrased with “por” and vice versa.
Now let’s review some other examples of por vs. para:
All of these situations can be deduced with our timeline method. As you have read before, most sentences with “para” can be closely paraphrased with “por” and vice versa; this means that we will find an alternative for each of these.
Josefa escribe un ensayo para mañana: The first one refers to a deadline, it uses “para” to mention a future situation (the submission of the essay)
Josefa compró un regalo para su madre: This implies a future action. There is an object, and that object has a recipient. That object was either purchased, found, made, or simply has to “exist” in order to be “given” to someone.
If we want to use “por” to communicate something similar we can say: “Por querer darle algo a su madre, Josefa compró un regalo” – Because she wanted to give something to her mother, Josefa bought a present. Here, as well, a previous motivation makes her do something.
Josefa va para México: This sentence is telling us that Josefa is doing something (traveling) in order to reach a final destination (Mexico).
How could we phrase this with “por”? Maybe something like “Josefa viaja por querer llegar a México” – Josefa travels because she wants to go to Mexico. Remember that this “paraphrasing” needs some creativity and lateral thinking!
Esta novela fue escrita por Josefa: The fourth example mentions that our friend Josefa wrote a book, so it refers to the past.
This example, as well, can be phrased with para if we say something like this: “Josefa escribió para terminar un libro” – Josefa writes in order to finish a book. Here she did something to achieve a future goal.
Pretty logical, right?
Sorry, but our amazingly logical bubble is about to burst.
Now we’ll talk about the exceptions to our technique. As I mentioned before, most of the examples that we have discussed so far can be paraphrased with both prepositions. This is not the case with our exceptions, where only one version applies. In addition, for these cases there is no chronological relation among what comes before and after “por” and “para”. The great news is that our timeline method explains most of the por vs. para uses, and the situations below are much less frequent.
First, we’ll cover the exclusive uses of “por” that may refer to time, space or exchanges. This uses are a little bit random, so it is good to have them listed:
This has already been explained, but let’s see some more examples for the sake of clarity and symmetry:
– “A Josefa no le gusta comunicarse por correo electrónico” – Josefa doesn’t like to communicate through email.
– “A Josefa no le gusta nada viajar por avión.” – Josefa doesn’t like at all to travel by plane.
If you have to go through the park in order to get to the mall you’ll say:
– “Voy por el parque.” – I go through the park.
If you’ll work for three hours you will say:
– “Trabajaré por tres horas.” – I’ll work for three hours.
If you have lived in Russia for five years you’ll say:
– “Viví en Rusia por cinco años” – I lived in Russia for five years.
This is a very general word, you can exchange money for goods and services, but you can also exchange one thing for another (trade), or an activity you don’t really like for a different one. Let’s see some examples:
– “Josefa compró un pantalón por veinte dólares.” – Josefa bought a pair of pants for twenty dollars.
– “Josefa cambió el pantalón por una camisa.” – Josefa exchanged her pants for a shirt.
– “Josefa se cansó de practicar natación y cambió por boxeo.” – Josefa got tired of swimming and switched to boxing.
Now we are going to take a minute to cover the exceptional uses of “para”. It may literally be a minute because there are only two:
When you want to say “in someone’s opinion” you’ll use para. For example:
– “Para Josefa, la ciudad de México es una de las más bonitas” – In Josefa’s opinion, Mexico City is one of the prettiest.
Finally, and with this last use we would have covered every possibility with “por” and “para”, I will explain one of the weirdest uses of these two words.
Read these two sentences and try to figure out how they are different:
– “Por ser Uruguaya, Josefa habla español.” – For someone from Uruguay, Josefa speaks Spanish.
– “Para ser tan delgada, Josefa tiene mucha fuerza.” – For someone so thin, Josefa is very strong.
How was that? Any luck? Both sentences have two parts. They have that in common, but why do they take different prepositions?
The first one is a prototypical case of cause and consequence that takes “por” for everything that we’ve mentioned (She knows Spanish because she was born in Uruguay).
The second one on the other hand, presents a “contrast”, an unexpected outcome. We would definitely expect a person from Uruguay to speak Spanish, right? But if someone is very thin, we wouldn’t expect that person to be very strong. We use “para” instead of “por” to express that contradiction.
We’ve done it! These are all the uses for “por” and “para”. Let’s summarize what we’ve learned:
THE TIMELINE METHOD
Now that we have finally understood por vs. para, we can go through a story together. We have learned a lot about this Uruguayan girl named Josefa, so let’s get some further insight on who she is and what she does.
At this point, you probably have overdosed on por vs. para, but we are almost done. As you go through the story, try to figure out on your own how each “por” and “para” works in the text.
“Josefa nació en Montevideo, la capital de Uruguay, pero a los dieciocho años viajó a París para (1) estudiar . Para (2) Josefa, pocas cosas son tan importantes como viajar. Por (3) ser tan viajera, ha conocido muchos lugares y ha aprendido muchos idiomas. Habla inglés, español y francés a la perfección, y por (4) sus abuelos, que son de Berlín, también sabe un poco de alemán. Tiene veintidós años, así que para (5) ser tan joven, habla muchísimos idiomas.
A Josefa le encanta viajar por (6) tren, porque puede ver el paisaje y leer por (7) horas. No le importan los viajes largos, por (8) eso el mes pasado fue a Moscú desde París. ¡Viajó por (9) más de cuarenta horas! Pasó por (10) lugares increíbles, y dice que le gustó mucho Bielorrusia. Josefa siempre quiso hacer ese viaje, pero por (11) ser estudiante nunca había tenido dinero suficiente. Hace unos meses, por (12) un gran descuento, compró un tiquete por (13) unos pocos Euros. ¡Estaba muy feliz!”
“Josefa was born in Montevideo, the Capital of Uruguay, but when she was eighteen she traveled to Paris in order to study translation. For Josefa, few things are as important as traveling. Because she is such a traveler, she knows many places and has learned many languages. She speaks perfect Spanish, English, and French, and because of her grandparents, who are from Berlin, she also knows some German. She is twenty-two-years old, so for someone so young, she speaks many languages.
Josefa loves to travel by train because she can see the landscape and read for hours. She doesn’t mind long journeys, and for that reason, when she went to Moscow from Paris last month, she traveled for more than forty hours! She passed through incredible places, and she says that she really liked Belorussia. Josefa has always wanted to take that trip, but because she is a student she never had enough money. A few months ago, due to a big sale, she bought a ticket for a just few euros. She was very happy!”
So, how did you do?
Ok. Let’s see:
You’ve made it! After all this thorough analysis, you can go and brag about your deep knowledge of when to use por vs. para. Or at least, you can start using por vs. para while feeling a little less confused. Don’t worry if you are not feeling 100% certain, you’ll get better with practice. You can always come back to this article whenever you feel that you need a cheat sheet.