¡Qué tiempos de locura! I’ve been largely away from this platform due to career changes and family health issues and, now, I return at a time when the whole world se está volviendo loco. The Spanish language, however, remains my passion and hobby and I figured, rather than simply watch telenovelas and skype with my cuates in Mexico, I’d write another article for those of you who are using this time of cuarentena to improve your español.
A friend asked if I might write an article on para y por, similar to those I wrote last year on el subjuntivo. This is another one of those confounding dualities that seems to permeate the Spanish language, similar to ser vs estar, indicativo vs subjuntivo, pero vs sino, etc. While I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on it, we’ll see if I can explain the differences in a way that makes sense. Prepositions are said to be one of the hardest aspects of learning any language, simply because they don’t usually correspond neatly one language to another. Often, there’s no apparent logic behind them.
The good news is that there is some logic to para y por, and, while it may seem superfluous to have two words where English generally uses one, there are some rules and patterns to help you choose the right word. It’s true that, in English, we use “for” for most of the meanings of para y por, but we also have prepositions like “by”, “across”, “through” which can also correspond to para y por in Spanish. Most instances, however, can be translated by “for”, but Spanish makes distinctions between certain nuances which can remain ambiguous in English. Let’s start with this example:
“I bought the gift for my mother.”
Instinctively, you would probably assume this sentence means that “I gifted something to my mother.” It can, however, also mean “I picked up the gift as a favor to my mother,” as in “my mother was purchasing a gift for someone else and sent me to get it”. Spanish makes the distinction clear:
“Compré el regalo para mi madre.” – I bought the gift [to give] to my mother.
“Compré el regalo por mi madre.” – I bought the gift on my mother’s behalf.
In this case, para indicates the purpose for buying the gift (to give to my mother), whereas por indicates on whose behalf I purchased the gift. Here’s another example:
“Trabajé para Mario” – I worked for Mario… he was my boss.
“Trabajé por Mario.” – I worked in Mario’s place…as his substitute.
In these sentences, para indicates the recipient of my work- my boss- whereas por indicates on whose behalf I worked, in this case a co-worker or friend.
In both examples, para indicates the purpose of the action or to whom or what the action is destined. Por, on the other hand, indicates the cause or reason for the action, on what or on whose behalf the action is carried out.
Let’s look at another example:
“Este libro es para Mark Twain” – This book is for Mark Twain.
“Este libro es por Mark Twain” – This book is by Mark Twain.
The first sentence would only make sense if you are giving a book to someone named Mark Twain. In that case, Mark Twain would be the recipient of the book. The second sentence, however, means that Mark Twain wrote the book. Mark Twain is the reason the book exists. This is one of those instances in which English also uses a different preposition- “by”- to mark the contrast.
There’s also a difference between para y por when referring to places, which corresponds roughly to our English “to” versus “through”.
“Voy para México.” – I’m going to Mexico… it is my final destination.
“Voy por México.” – I’m going through México… but it isn’t my destination.
“Tome el camino para Madrid.” – “Take the road that goes to Madrid.”
“Tome el camino por Madrid.” – “Take the road through Madrid.”
In the first example, para conveys finality. Once I get to México, I’ve completed my journey. With por, I am simply indicating that passing through México is the means by which I am traveling somewhere else. This is another important distinction: para is associated with ends whereas por is about means.
There are some cases in which it’s only possible to use one or the other- and, more often than not, por wins out. For instance, in the sentence “Él viaja por tren” (He is traveling by train), it wouldn’t make sense to use para, as a train by its very nature is not a final destination but rather a means of getting somewhere. “Entraron por la ventana” (They entered through the window) is another case in which para would not work, as the window is the means by which they entraron.
When it comes to time, para indicates deadlines (again, finality) whereas por indicates length. “La tarea es para mañana” (The homework is for tomorrow) vs “Tengo tarea por toda la semana” (I have homework for the whole week).
There are a number of idiomatic or fixed expressions which use one or the other, and these simply have to be memorized and practiced. Rather than inundate you with every possible use, I’ll leave you with a few of the most common:
- Para is used to express opinions, as in the sentence “Para mí, esa blusa es demasiado llamativa” (In my opinion, that blouse is too flashy).
- Para is also used in the sense of the English “in order to”: “Vengo para decirte algo muy importante” (I’ve come in order to tell you something very important). This aligns with the use of para to indicate the purpose of something.
- Por is used for multiplication: “Tres por tres son nueve” (Three times three is nine). It is also used with cost: “Lo compré por cinco dólares” (I bought it for five dollars).
- Por is used in the sense of “in search of” as in “Espérame allí, voy por ti” (Wait for me there, I’m coming to get you).
The general idea is that anything that has to do with purpose, destination, recipients or finality goes with para, whereas por is all about causes, reasons and means. Although “for” is the most common English translation for (no pun intended) para y por, you can sometimes figure out which one to use by thinking through equivalent English terms.
Use para if, in English, you can substitute:
“for the purpose of”
- “The tool is for (the purpose of) cutting wood.” – La herramienta es para cortar madera.
“in my opinion”
- “For me it’s a waste of time.” – Para mí, es un desperdicio de tiempo.
“in order to”
- “I’m going [in order] to help you.” – Voy para ayudarte.
“in favor of”
- “I brought this message for [in favor of] Paco.” – Traje este mensaje para Paco.
Use por if, in English, the following terms fit:
- “I did it because of you” OR, depending on context, “I did it in your place.” – Lo hice por ti.
“on behalf of” or “in place of”
- “I will work on your behalf tomorrow.” – Mañana trabajaré por ti.
- “We prefer to travel through the countryside.” – Preferimos viajar por el campo.
“by means of”
- “She talks to me on [by means of] the phone every day.” – Ella me habla por telephono todos los días.
- “We’re traveling by [means of a] plane” – Viajamos por avión
“in exchange for”
- “I bought it [in exchange] for twenty dollars” – Lo compré por veinte dólares
Of course, there are many instances in which “for” is the only reasonable translation in English (“This gift is for you”, “This paperwork is for Mary”, etc.) and you’ll have to think through what meaning is being conveyed in order to determine whether por or para is appropriate.
An entire book could be written on this subject, but I hope that I’ve simplified the concept without diluting it too much. If anything no está claro or if you can think of better ejemplos of the uses of para y por, feel free to write a comment below.
Espero que a todos les esté yendo lo mejor posible… estamos pasando por momentos muy inciertos. ¡Qué aprovechen para mejor tu español! Hasta pronto…