While both por and para both loosely mean “for” and link two parts of (or events occurring in) a sentence, there’s one main difference:
With por, both events (or parts of a sentence) happen at the same time. The two events occuring in the same sentence are inseparable. Therefore, por usually describes the means or cause for something. It looks backwards, opening a window back in time.
With para, one event – or part of the sentence – happens after the other. It usually conveys some sort of purpose, aim or destination. That’s why it’s usually future-facing, as it acts as a gateway to upcoming events.
Struggling to follow? I’m not surprised. In all honesty, there’s a lot more to it than that. The difference between the two is a rather tricky business, for anyone learning Spanish.
Dip into the more thorough explanation – the more you read, the more sense this will all make, promise!
Longer, more thorough answer:
Is it por, or para?
How many times has this nagging thought caused you tail off mid-sentence?
If your answer is too many, then hold tight and stay on the page: you’re in good hands here.
Why are por and para so challenging?
Understanding the difference may feel tricky. But like with any element of a language, mastering the difference between por and para takes a bit of practice.
But first, let me dispel a myth: one of the reasons you may find it complex is because Spanish learners are often told that por and para both mean for.
While this isn’t wrong, it’s not entirely true.
There are many other translations for por and para in English – and it all depends on the context.
Por can mean:
- because of
- instead of
Para can mean:
- in order to
- according to
The key to understanding whether to use por or para is to think of the meaning you want to convey, rather than the exact translation.
You see, prepositions – words like for, by, to etc. – don’t necessarily have an exact match in other languages.
Which means you’ll need to immerse yourself in Spanish in order to get a feel for which Spanish prepositions to use in which contexts.
Not much of a reader, but still want help with por and para? Check out Busuu’s specialised unit on the subject.
Por vs. para: the shortcut method
Since we know it can take a while to get a sense for these things, we’ve got a simple technique for you to help you decide when to use por, and when to use para.
Of course, this super-simple rule won’t necessarily apply to every por or para in Spanish you come across (learning Spanish would be a walk in the park, otherwise!). So consider this tip a loose rule, which excludes a few sneaky exceptions.
First things first: both por and para link two parts of a sentence. But the main difference is this:
- With para, there is usually a sequence of events: one bit of the sentence happens after the other.
|Salgo para Barcelona mañana.|
|I’m leaving for Barcelona tomorrow.|
Check this out: the first part of the sentence says, “I’m leaving”, and then the second part moves on to say that I’ll arrive in Barcelona tomorrow.
One thing happens after the other.
- With por, however, everything usually happens at the same time. In essence, the two events occuring in the same sentence are inseparable.
|El ladrón entró por la ventana.|
|The thief got inside through the window.|
See it here?
The thief getting inside and how the thief did it – aka through the window – happened at the same time.
What this means is para usually conveys some sort of purpose, aim or destination. That’s why it’s usually future-facing, as it acts as a gateway to upcoming events.
Por, on the other hand, usually describes the cause for something. That’s why it looks backward facing: it opens a window back in time.
Por and para: the complete method (4 key differences)
Let’s move on to the longer, more thorough method. There are four main differences between por and para:
1. Por is for reason, para is for purpose
- Use por to talk about the reason for doing something. In this scenario, you’d translate it as “because of”.
|Estudio español por mi trabajo.|
|I’m studying Spanish because of my job.|
- Use para to describe the purpose behind doing something. Consider its English translation to be “in order to”.
|Estudio español para trabajar en Argentina.|
|I’m studying Spanish in order to work in Argentina.|
2. Por is for travelling, para is for the final destination
- Por describes travelling through or around a place.
|Este autobús pasa por el centro de la ciudad.|
|This bus goes through the city centre.|
|El año pasado viajamos por España.|
|Last year we travelled around Spain.|
- Para describes travelling to a place. It refers to the final destination of the journey.
|Este autobús va para el centro de la ciudad.|
|This bus goes to the city centre.|
3. Por is for duration, para is for deadlines
- Use por to describe duration – in other words, how long something lasts. The trick for spotting this scenario? You should always be able switch por for durante (“during”) in the sentence.
|Estudié por (durante) dos horas.|
|I studied for (during) 2 hours.|
- We always use para to refer to a date in the future –typically, when there is a deadline looming.
|Necesito terminar el informe para mañana.|
|I need to finish the report by tomorrow.|
4. Por is “by” someone, para is “for” someone
- Por refers to a person who did something – in plain English, something was done by someone.
|Este puente fue construido por los romanos.|
|This bridge was built by the Romans.|
- Para refers to the person something was done for – in other words, something was done for someone.
|Compré este libro para mi hermana.|
|I bought this book for my sister.|
Bonus round: 3 common expressions that use por or para
Hanging in there so far?
Now to finish off, let’s have a look at 3 por or para phrases that you’ll hear time and again in Spanish conversation. They’re definitely ones worth memorising, if you can!
1. Para mí (“in my opinion”)
You can say creo que to start offering your opinion in Spanish. But if you want to sound a bit more authentic, introduce your opinion by saying para mí.
|Para mí, tienes toda la razón.|
|In my opinion, you’re absolutely right.|
2. Por aquí (“around here”)
If you have a vague inkling of where something is but can’t provide an exact location, you can use por to describe your approximate whereabouts.
|No hay ningún cine por aquí, creo que hay uno por el centro.|
|There isn’t any cinema around here. I think there is one somewhere in the city centre.|
3. Por teléfono (“on the phone”)
It’s not just por teléfono, but also por internet, or por correo electrónico. Basically, all these phrases are used for a type of transmission.
|Anoche hablé con Ana por teléfono.|
|Last night I spoke to Ana on the phone.|
Don’t focus on memorising all the rules.
While they are important, studying a list of rules can also be a waste of time – especially if you’re trying to master the difference between por and para in a short space of time.
So instead of referring to a long, never-ending list of uses, look for patterns.
And the more you expose yourself to Spanish conversations, the more you’ll realise there are certain expressions that will always use por and para.
And after a while, you won’t even have to think about it. You’ll just know.
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