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When do you use por and para?

A difficulty for many English-speaking learners in particular is that Spanish has two prepositions, por and para, both of which can carry meanings of the English word for. (As we'll see, they can also carry some other meanings.)

Choosing between por and para meaning "for"

First, a rule of thumb that will help distinguish between por and para in many, but not all, cases:

  • if for implies strong purpose, then para is usually used, often carrying notions such as:
    • "in order to help/benefit..."
    • "as a gift for..."
    • "to be used by/with..."
    • movement towards a place
  • if for implies a weaker reason/purpose or an exchange, then por us generally used; it often carries notions such as:
    • "in exchange for..."
    • "instead of..."
    • "because of...", "for the reasons of..."

Here are some examples of the uses of por and para:

Strong purpose: paraExchange/reason: por
lo hice para
I did for you (=in order to help you)
¿lo compraste para mí?
did you buy it for me?
Elton John da un concierto para Oxfam
Elton John is giving a concert for Oxfam
necesito agua para el té
I need water for the tea
esta ropa es para niños
these clothes are for children
tengo que estudiar para mis examenes
I need to study for (=to pass) my exams (indicates strong goal/purpose)
ya salgo para tu casa
I'm leaving for your place now
este coche está hecho para acelerar rápido
this car is made for rapid acceleration
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lo hice por
I did for you (=in your place, instead of you)
están en dos por uno
they're on two-for-one
lo vendí por 200 euros
I sold it for 200 Euro
¿puedo cambiar mi té por un café?
can I swap my tea for a coffee?
lo compré por tres razones
I bought it for three reasons
lo hice por motivos personales
I did it for personal reasons
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And a slightly counter-intuitive case:

voy por el vino
I'll go for the wine, I'll get the wine
fueron por más café
they went/they've gone for some more coffee
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Difficult cases

Note, however, that there are some verbs indicating a choice that use por where English would use for even though the person/thing being chosen could be seen as a "benefactor":

voté por Obama
I voted for Obama
optamos por el primer método
we'll opt for the first method
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In some cases, there's some crossover between the notion of "benefit" and "purpose/reason", and so there are cases where there's not much difference between por and para:

te lo compré para/por tu cumpleaños
I bought it you for your birthday
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Arguably in this case, para carries a stronger notion of "giving a gift", whereas por means something like "on the occasion of", "because it's...". But the difference appears slight.

The notion of to go for... is usually translated by ir por.... However, there are cases where there is a strong enough notion of "purpose" that ir para... is possible:

¿a qué hora tienes que ir por tu tren?
what time do you have to go for your train?
¿a qué hora tienes que ir para tu tren?
what time do you have to go to catch your train?
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por and para with an infinitive

A further source of confusion is that both para and por can be used before an infinitive, where they'd often be translated with to, in order to, for the purpose of ...ing:

  • para + infinitive is the normal construction and is generally always possible;
  • por + infinitive generally indicates a more emphatic or emotional purpose.

In general, por is more readily used with the infinitive in an "emphatic" construction such as sólo por... (meaning something like "for the sole purpose of ...ing"). For example:

"Normal/mechanical" purpose: paraMore "emphatic/emotional" purpose: por
el ingeniero ha venido para reparar la lavadora
the engineer has come to repair the washing machine

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he venido sólo por verte
I've come for the sole purpose of seeing you
(also possible: ...para verte)
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por and para with time phrases

Both por and para are used in time phrases. But in general:

  • por indicates a duration;
  • para indicates a deadline or finishing point.

For example:

voy a Cancun por dos semanas
I'm going to Cancun for two weeks
fuimos a Madrid por una semana
we went to Madrid for a week esta tarea es para el martes
this homework is for Tuesday
lo tengo que hacer para mañana
I've got to do it for tomorrow

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However, there are cases where para could be used with a duration when it means something like "for the purpose of spending this amount of time":

este paquete es para dos semanas en Cancun
this package is for two weeks in Cancun
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