Most Spanish learners don’t know when to use por and when to use para. Are you among them? After learning the trick I’ll give you in this article, you won’t be anymore!
Depending on context, these two little words may be translated as either for, by, to, on, through, according to, because of, in exchange for, in order to, etcetera…
Confused yet? Sé que puede parecer muy difícil (I know it may seem really difficult), and you’d probably never remember any of that in a conversation, but you don’t need to!… There’s actually a really easy trick to use them correctly without having to know any of the rules! Most native speakers don’t, so why should you?
At the end of the article, I’ll give you a little quiz where you can prove to yourself that you can now use por and para correctly yourself.
Most common mistakes made by Spanish learners
Since por and para look very similar, Spanish learners tend to make these mistakes:
- Existen reglas por eso. (There are rules for that.) —This is not entirely wrong… The thing is that instead of saying there are rules FOR that you would be saying there are rules BECAUSE OF that.
- Esta carta es por ella. (This letter is for her.)
- Correct version: Esta carta es para ella.
- Estudié para tres horas. (I studied for three hours.)
- Correct version: Estudié por tres horas.
- Gracias para el regalo. (Thanks for the gift.)
- Correct version: Gracias por el regalo.
So, here’s the trick to avoid these mistakes…
Learn por and para through chunks
In a conversation you’ll never be able to remember any rules as to when to use por or para (it’s not just you, nobody can)… Therefore, you have to start by learning as many examples of por and para as possible by heart within the context of a sentence, in a chunk (a fixed Spanish word combination).
For example, in Spanish, we use para to indicate who is the recipient of something, such as a gift or a letter.
- Este regalo es para ti. (This gift is for you.)
Learn this chunk by heart in the context of this sentence. You may do so through a flashcard:
FRONT: Este regalo ___________ (is for you).
BACK: Este regalo es para ti.
Soon, you’ll start connecting the concept of giving a present to someone with para ti.
And your brain will know how to use it correctly in other, similar situations as well. Like…
- Traje esto… para ti. (I brought this for you.)
- Esta película es… para adultos. (This movie is for adults.)
So, imagine you learn these examples by heart (with flashcards like we’ve shown you)…
And THEN someone tells you the rule that para is used to indicate a “recipient”, meaning FOR someone… it’ll be MUCH easier for you to make sense of it all. You won’t even need to know the rule anymore, you’ll just do it correctly automatically! Cool, right?
Of course, just 3 examples isn’t enough to make this work. So, for the rest of this article, I’ll give you tons of example sentences like this, so you can learn chunks with “por” or “para” by heart…
By the way, we’ve created flashcards with all the examples in this article AND for all our other article (that’s over 100 articles already) for our Spring Spanish Inner Circle members! It’s the best way to learn all these chunks and make the most out of our daily Spanish articles.
When to use para: more examples
1) Deadlines and goals
Para is used to tell the date and/or the time when something is due. So, your boss or your teacher might tell you:
- Necesito el reporte para el viernes. (I need the report by Friday.)
- De tarea para mañana, lean hasta la página veinte. (The homework for tomorrow is reading until page 20.)
- Era para ayer. (It was due yesterday.) —This is something translators say because everything is urgent almost always, so much so that we say this sarcastically to indicate that a translation is always due even before it’s requested…
Spanish speakers also use para to talk about things they want to achieve:
- Trabajo para costear mis viajes. (I work to finance my trips.)
- Tomo café para despertar. (I drink coffee to wake up.)
- Estoy aprendiendo español para… (I’m learning Spanish to…) —Complete this sentence in the comments below!
Para is the equivalent of “according to” or “for” when someone is giving an opinion about something.
- Para mí, el alemán es la lengua más bonita del mundo. (For me, German is the most beautiful language in the world.) —A controversial opinion, I know!
- Para mi mamá, mi hermano es el hombre más guapo del mundo. (According to my mom, my brother is the most handsome man in the world.) —A total lie, obviously…
Lastly, para is used to talk about the place one is going to on a trip, a drive, or a stroll.
- Mañana salimos para Durango. (We’re traveling to Durango tomorrow.)
- Voy para allá. (Literally, I’m going there; more idiomatically, I’m on my way.)
When to use por
1) Reason or Motive
Native speakers use por to indicate why something was done or is taking place.
- Emma Thompson ganó el Óscar por su talento. (Emma Thompson won the Oscar because of her talent.)
- Me duelen las manos por tanto trabajar. (My hands hurt because I work a lot.)
Fun fact: Si algún día vienes a México (if you come to Mexico one day), you’ll hear por mis huevos very often.
Por mis huevos is another example of a chunk you can’t translate literally into English. The literal translation is “because of my eggs”, lo cual no tiene ningún sentido (which doesn’t make any sense). What Mexicans mean when they use this expression is “because I say so”.
When you give something in exchange for something else, you need por.
Children say this very often in the playground:
- Te cambio tu sandwich por mi manzana. (I’ll exchange my apple for your sandwich.)
Similarly, businesspeople will usually say:
- Te ofrezco 40 millones por tus acciones en la empresa. (I offer you 40 million for your shares in the company.) —I could use 40 million… but I have no shares…
3) Travel and Communication
Lastly, por is used to indicate how something or someone travels.
- Viajamos por carretera a Durango. (Literally, we traveled by land to Durango; more idiomatically, we drove to Durango.) —So, por carretera is another chunk!
- Te mando la tarea por correo. (I’ll send you the homework by email.)
- Pasé por tu casa anoche. (I drove by your house last night.)
Quiz / Practice
Okay, llegó el momento (the time has come) to practice and to test the skills you’ve acquired so far. Try to fill in the blank!
- Esta película es solo ___________. (This movie is for adults only.)
- Emma Thompson ganó el Óscar ____________. (Emma Thompson won the Oscar because of her talent.)
- Era ____________. (It was due yesterday.)
- Te cambio tu sandwich ____________. (I’ll exchange my apple for your sandwich.)
- Tomo café _____________. (I drink coffee to wake up.)
- Te mando la tarea ___________. (I’ll send you the homework by email.)
- _____________, mi hermano es el hombre más guapo del mundo. (According to my mom, my brother is the hottest man in the world.)
How many did you get right? Let me know in the comments! Next up is my piece about the difference between desde and hace, another pair that might cause a headache or two… but you guessed it: that headache can be solved with chunks too!