Knowing when to use por vs para is one of the most confusing parts of Spanish grammar for new Spanish learners.
Even after I was comfortable holding entire conversations in Spanish, I still got uneasy mid-sentence trying to decide whether to say por or para.
If you can relate or if you are still struggling to remember the difference, you are not alone!
Por/para confusion is so common that I’ve made a video describing the most common situations and mistakes that Spanish learners need to know. If you’d like to skip straight to the video, you can find it here.
Or you prefer to see the information in print, or want additional examples, scroll down and read on!
One reason that most people who learn Spanish find por vs para difficult is that most translations of por and para are incomplete.
When you first started studying Spanish, you were probably told that both por and para mean “to”. While that is correct, it is an incomplete definition.
Let’s look at a more comprehensive definition of each word before moving into the most helpful rules and examples you’ll need.
- Por – to, by, through, in, because of, during, per
- Para – to, in order to, by (as in a deadline), for the purpose of, in order to, for
As you can see, por and para are more complex than simply two different versions of the same word.
The good news is that by learning the following five distinctions, you will avoid most of the common mistakes Spanish learners make with por and para:
When speaking about going somewhere, por refers to movement within an area. For example:
- Yo corro por el parque en las mañanas.(I run in the park in the morning.)
In this example, I used por because “I run in (or through)” the park. Anytime you are talking about travelling through a place, use por.
Por is also used if you are travelling through one place to get to another:
- Voy a Mexico por Tijuana. (I am going to Mexico via/by way of Tijuana.)
Para, on the other hand, is always used when talking about the destination:
- Salimos para Colombia ahora. (We are leaving for Colombia today.)
That means that yes, you may sometimes use both por and para in the same sentence when talking about an upcoming trip:
One part of the sentence (voy para España) denotes your final destination. The remainder (voy a viajar por todo el país) describes how you will travel within Spain once you arrive.
When you talk about how long something lasts (duration), use por. It doesn’t actually matter that there be a specific duration as long as you are talking about how something lasts:
- Solamente durmieron por cuatro horas. (They only slept for four hours.)
- Ella siempre duerme por las tardes. (She always sleeps in the afternoon.)
Para is always used when there is a deadline:
- Tengo que terminar el exámen para las once. (I need to finish the exam by 11 o’clock.)
Again, looking at an example of a time you would use both por and para in the same sentence should help you understand the difference:
In this example, para mañana (for tomorrow) and por la mañana (in the morning) have two very different meanings.
Por is used to describe who did something, while para expresses who (or what) it was done for:
- El regalo es para la cumplañera. (The gift is for the birthday girl.)
- La fiesta fue organizada por sus padres. (The party was organized by her parents.)
- Escribí una carta para Carlos. (I wrote a letter to Carlos.)
Another way to think about this rule is to remember that you use para when talking about a destination. In the previous example, the letter’s final destination is Carlos!
Por can also describe a replacement, like the way “for” can work in English. In this example, por is used because the sentence is talking about who did the action (by whom) in someone else’s place:
- Enseñé la clase por mi amiga. Estuvo enferma. (I taught the class for (in place of) my friend. She was sick.)
This distinction can get confusing because the same basic sentence has two different meanings depending on whether you use por or para:
- ¿Puedes cantar por mi hoy? (Can you sing for me today?)
- ¿Puedes cantar para mi en mis cumpleaños? (Can you sing for me on my birthday?)
The first sentence is something a singer might ask a fellow cast member, while the second sentence is one you might hear between friends.
4. Because Of vs In Order To
Use por when you are explaining why something happens:
- Por las elecciones, hay mucha gente en las calles. (Because of the elections, there are a lot of people in the streets.)
Para, on the other hand, is used when speaking about what needs to happen in order for something else to occur:
- Para llegar al tiempo, necesitas tomar el bus a las 8 de la mañana. (In order to get there on time, we need to catch the 8 o’clock bus in the morning.)
Here is a final example of the fourth rule that uses both por and para in the same sentence:
Are you wondering why I used para at the end of that sentence? If you go back to the list of translations at the beginning of this article, you will find the answer! 😉
I used para before ir al trabajo because I could also say, “Because of the rain, I can’t leave my house in order to go to work.”
The final rule of thumb for you to remember is that you always use por when you are talking about an exchange. This is similar to the replacement example above.
- Gracias por la invitación. (Thank you for the invitation).
In this sentence, you are offering thanks in exchange for the invitation.
Let’s finish this example with two sentences that use both por and para:
- Yo trabajo por dinero y para aprender cosas nuevas. (I work for money and to learn new things.)
- Yo pago por la comida, y tu compras las cervezas para la fiesta. (I’ll pay for the food, and you buy the beer for the party.)
In both examples, por denotes a trade, while para explains the objective or purpose of an action.
By this point, you have probably started to notice a pattern in when to use por and when to use para.
That’s because many of the “rules” are closely related!
While it may seem daunting when you’re first starting out, the overlap means that the more you use por and para, the more intuitive the differences will feel.
Finally, let’s look at a few situations that don’t always fit within the rules above. I suggest you simply memorise these situations if you want to avoid common mistakes and learn Spanish fast:
- Para mi es difícil aprender inglés. (For me, it’s difficult to learn English.)
In English, you might start that sentence with “I think” or “It seems like,” but in Spanish, you almost always begin a statement of opinion with para mi.
This goes back to rule #2, but it is a common enough mistake I see in Spanish learners to mention again:
- Tomaba clases dos veces por semana. (I used to take classes twice a week.)
- Julia siempre va al restaurante por la tarde. (Julia always goes to the restaurant in the afternoon)
If you don’t know exactly where or when something is, use por:
- La tienda debe estar por aqui. (The store should be around here somewhere.)
- Visitaré a mis amigos por el verano. (I will visit my friends sometime in the summer.)
Ready to test out your knowledge of por and para? Then why not try your hand at this quick ten-question por vs para quiz I made for you:
Remember, don’t let the many uses for por and para discourage you. With practice and time, you will intuitively know which word to use when.
My suggestion is to spend lots of time listening to and reading Spanish. As you do, you’ll encounter por and para over and over again and in time you’ll develop a natural feel for when to use each one.
The best way to do this is by reading material that is fun and interesting and in my opinion, stories are ideal.
If you’re interested in finding out about some material I’ve made that helps you master por vs para (and lots of other tough elements of intermediate Spanish) in a fun and natural way, click here.
Either way – kepractisinging! And don’t be afraid to speak, even if you make some mistakes. Context will help Spanish speakers understand what you mean, even if you mix up por and para.
You can refer back to the video for a quick refresher and use these examples to help guide you in your study of Spanish.
Before you know it, por vs para will be second nature para tí!
What other aspects of Spanish grammar do you find difficult? Leave a comment below and let me know!