Dunno about other languages but so far as Spanish goes, the biggest pain in the neck to me has always been its prepositions. They are so confusing even seasoned speakers wind up doing them wrong at times. To be fair, these little devils are pretty confusing and chaotic in English as well. I mean just try explaining to the uninitiated the reason why you are in the house but at home even though home and house in this context are pretty much synonymous. Stumped? Thought as much. You see, that’s how grammar rolls. There are rules and there are exceptions to those rules. And thanks to natural evolution, these rules and exceptions often develop in ways that defy all conventional logic. This holds particularly true for prepositions which is why the only way to have them down is with practice and lots of it. Fortunately, por and para don’t belong to that group. Yes, practice would be a good idea to internalize the words but they aren’t actually as chaotic as they appear. Just one simple trick will ensure you never have to wonder which one to use where.
So What’s the Problem Anyway?
A very simplistic, although not entirely correct, lesson we are all taught in the classroom is that both por and para are Spanish for for. This is where the problem starts. Only once you step out of the classroom and into the wild do you realize that the mapping isn’t really that concrete. So why did this incorrect lesson perpetuate over time to begin with?
Turns out, the lesson you learned in the classroom was not entirely useless despite not being entirely correct either. Confused? Allow me to explain. The best way to understand por and para is indeed by mapping both of them to for. All you need to figure out is where to substitute for with para and where to do so with por. You see, for has several uses, too many to discuss them all. Most of them do map to either por or para. However, not all use-cases of por and para can correspond to for in English. There are times they map to through. Or along. Or about. Even to! And many more. This is what complicates matters for us. So the first step to understanding por and para is to shake off that notion that they are exclusively tied with for. Every language works its prepositions in its own unique way and attempting to align them with those in another language is the biggest mistake most beginners make. The following sections will help you start thinking of these Spanish prepositions as independent of their alleged English counterpart.
For Me, or Meant for Me?
This point cannot be stressed enough. Word-for-word translation is largely the reason you never got to wrap your head around why Spanish has a para if it already has por. This is also the reason why memorizing that a is to and por is for is such a train-wreck of an idea. The key to get correct Spanish with confidence is to always try translating what you want to convey instead of what you want to speak. Hence, let the first step be doing away with the idea that por and para are two optional variants for the English for. Did that? Good, now we can start with a clean slate. Take a look at the following sentences:
The caller is looking for your wife.
There’s a call for your wife.
Both examples use for. But both do not qualify for por or para in Spanish; only the second one does. That’s because despite using the same preposition, the two sentences do not convey similar meanings. The second one implies a sense of intended ownership whereas the first, a search. To search for translates into Spanish as buscar. Notice that buscar has a for hardwired in it which is why you don’t need an additional preposition (disregard the a for now) after it:
La persona que llama busca a tu mujer.
However, the second one has a legitimate use for preposition in Spanish. The call is for her, it belongs to her, which is why it calls for a para:
Hay un llamado para tu mujer.
Whenever you come across for, ask yourself if it’s conveying a sense of belonging. If yes, para is your friend. To make the process even more intuitive, see if you can substitute for with meant for. If so, you go with para. Use this formula and you should do well in most circumstances.
The Cause and Effect Trick
Not all uses of for involve possession. Many scenarios involve, instead, some kind of cause and effect in action. Even if that’s not immediately apparent, it pays to see if you can make the sentence look like one. Don’t force it, just see if it can naturally be made to reflect some kind of causality. Call it “cause vs. effect,” “means vs. end” – whatever you will. If you can do that, the sentence is eligible for a por or para in Spanish.
Once – and if – you’re able to see a scenario in the cause-effect light, the next step is to figure out which preposition to go with, which is extremely easy. Just pay attention to what comes after for. If that part indicates a cause, you pick por. If it’s the effect, you pick para. If you’re a visual learner, just draw an imaginary line in your head with the origin indicating cause and the end indicating effect. On this line, por would sit someplace along the line whereas para would be right at the endpoint. Let the following examples illustrate this:
My girlfriend works for Microsoft.
My girlfriend is working for her friend today.
Both sentences can be seen as cases for causality. In the first sentence, Microsoft is at the far end of the imaginary cause-effect line. The work there has a purpose – to serve Microsoft (of course, for a salary). Microsoft is the employer, and thus, the recipient of her work. That makes it the effect which is why you go with para:
Mi novia trabaja para Microsoft.
However, in the second scenario, this friend of hers is not the employer. She is just filling in for him, maybe because he is sick? His no-show is the reason she’s doing what she’s doing. That makes this friend the very cause of the work being done. On the imaginary line, he sits in the middle. This warrants a por.
Mi novia trabaja por su amigo hoy.
To make things simpler, just try substituting for with for the sake of. If you can do that without mutilating the essence of the sentence, you have a case for por. Por also qualifies for situations involving in behalf of or because of – essentially, any phrase that indicates the means to an end.
On the other hand, para is the preposition of choice whenever you can substitute for with in order to or in service of. Here’s some more examples to drive home these points:
Debemos jugar para ganar (We should play to win).
Lo hizo para mí (She did it for me).
Lo hizo por mí (She did it for me).
The first sentence is easy to get, a clear case of in order to. But what’s going on in the next two? The second example goes with para because she did what she did in my service. I asked her to do it and she did it. In the third example, however, she was just filling in for me. I was my job and I didn’t show up so someone had to do it. That’s makes it a because of case and thus por. English uses for in both scenarios, letting the context decide how you interpret it. Not so in Spanish where both situations are unambiguously different.
The Journey, the Destination
Remember the imaginary line we drew to identify cause and effect? Let’s try the same trick except that this time, the line is gonna be a more tangible one – a line in space. This is a line that shows motion from point A to point B. Just as in the previous case, para takes the endpoint on this line (the destination, if you will) and por sits someplace before that (the origin or the length).
Needless to say, any situation regardless of what preposition it uses in English qualifies for por or para if it involves motion. Whether it takes por or para is decided by this line we just discussed. Para introduces a destination whereas por introduces the waypoints or the origin. Here’s some illustration:
Salimos para Cancún (We’re leaving for Cancun).
Vamos por Cancún (We’re going through Cancun).
The first one takes para because it introduces Mexico as the destination. However, the second shows Mexico as a mere waypoint which is why despite English using through instead of for, Spanish takes por. It doesn’t matter if English uses through, by, for, or around; as long as it can be represented on this line, it qualifies for a por or para.
Another interesting scenario with por is when the point looks like a destination but isn’t quite. You could interpret por in these situations as toward:
Ven por aquí (Come this way).
Here, aquí is not your final destination. It’s just a direction for you to follow along. You would substitute por with para in the above sentence if aquí were not mere direction but the actual destination; it’s all about the nuance.
The Arrow of Time
The imaginary line is our silver bullet once again, this time a tad abstract though. The line we draw this time is in time and not in space. The formula stays the same: Por sits along the line and para, at the end. Want to see if the trick holds water here? Let’s try some examples:
Caminábamos por dos horas (We walked for two hours).
Here, the entire line stretches over 2 hours and the act of walking spans its entire length. It doesn’t sit on the endpoint, it’s along the length. That’s why the preposition of choice is por. Now try this:
La tarea para martes es escribir un ensayo (The homework for Tuesday is to write an essay).
Here, Tuesday sits at the endpoint on the line. The homework is due on that day. That’s the final moment. Para emerges as the clear winner here and it’s easy to see why. Para could also represent by in time phrases as long as the time expressed is an endpoint on the arrow and not a duration spanning the length:
Va a aquí para abril (She’ll be here by April).
Salen para diciembre (They’re leaving by December).
In other words, para indicates a kind of a deadline. If that deadline becomes a moment when something actually gets done, you could replace para with en just as you could replace by with in.
Give and Take
This one is kinda related to the cause-and-effect idea. Por often indicates an exchange or substitution as is the case here:
Mi carro rinde treinta millas por galón (My car does thirty miles a gallon).
Here, you’re essentially exchanging a gallon of gas with thirty miles of running which is what justifies por. The easiest way to remember this usage is to remember the rhyme between por and per. That way, miles per gallon easily turn into millas por galón. This analogy can be extended to cover any situation where an exchange is involved:
Pagó cincuenta dolares por su peinado (She paid fifty dollars for her haircut).
The above sentence can easily be rendered as fifty dollars per haircut which would justify using por. This rule should be the easiest to follow since there’s no para involved, hence no ambiguity. Actually, this rule fits in quite well with our cause-and-effect theory. Whenever you exchange something with something else, you’re essentially creating a cause-and-effect situation. The car runs because there’s a gallon of gas; she paid fifty dollars for the sake of the book.
So there you are, everything you need in order to have your por and para in place. To sum up this long-winding discussion, it’s all in the line. The line goes from origin to destination, from cause to effect, from means to end, from starting point to final point. And para sits on the endpoint of this line. This little trick should have you covered in an overwhelming majority of por–para use-cases. I am pretty sure you can come up with even better ideas to ace them with just a little wacky thinking. Do join the discussion in the comments below and let us know if you have any fun tricks of your own!