Spanish Prepositions

Por and Para

All students of Spanish discover quickly that the prepositions por and para are a force with which to be reckoned. At first, we discover that they both mean "for"; however, under closer inspection, we find out that each has several other meanings; some are shared by both, and others are unique to each one.
The issues encountered with por and para are sometimes, compared with those of ser and estar, we have one (seemingly) clear-cut term in English and two terms in Spanish, each with a list of rules and baggage for us to absorb.
An important distinction between these two pairs of terms is that ser and estar, in most grammatical instances, are not interchangeable. What this means is that when a person makes an error using ser or estar, that error will register as a mistake in the mind of the listener (the bad news), but the listener nearly always will be able to "fix" the mistake in his or her mind and understand what the speaker intended (the good news).
por and para, on the other hand, are grammatically interchangeable a good deal of the time. You can use one or the other, and you will produce a perfectly well-structured sentence (the good news). However, most listeners lack mind-reading skills, and they will therefore assume that you mean what you are actually saying, which is not always the case (the bad news).
Consider the following pair of sentences (their differences will be explained more clearly in other parts of the unit):

  • A. Luciano canta para Plácido.
  • B. Luciano canta por Plácido.

Both sentences translate as "Luciano sings for Plácido." But they have very different meanings. In this unit on por and para, you will see several ways in which English is ambiguous and Spanish is crystal clear.
In sentence A, Luciano is singing to Plácido: Luciano is on the stage, and Plácido is sitting happily in the audience listening to the music. In sentence B, Luciano is singing on behalf of Plácido: Plácido is nowhere to be found, and Luciano takes his place. In this context, Luciano is Plácido.
In a nutshell, think of para as an arrow; in one way or another, para tells us where something is going. Por, on the other hand, is like a balance scale, equalizing both sides of the preposition.
Thus, we must be extremely careful in using por and para. In this unit we will examine the various meanings of each one: first, para; then, por. Finally, we will mix them up, as we do in everyday conversation. por and para, for all their tininess, provide the Spanish speaker with rich source of describing various relationships of people and things.


Like a balance scale, por is the great equalizer. When dealing with por, you can often feel the balance on both sides of the term. We trade things because they are of perceived equal value. When we say how long something lasts, we are equating the action with an amount of time. When we substitute one thing or person for another, we consider the two items or persons of equal value, at least temporarily.
The uses of por can be cleanly placed into the following six categories: duration, substitution, motivation, movement, emotions, and idioms. With all six, which you will see in their variations below, the feeling is one of equating or combinig nouns in a sentence, rather than differentiating them.

Por: Duration

Expresses duration of time: When expressing the duration of something - that is, telling how long something lasts - you use por. In this context, por translates as "for."

Cada día trabajamos por ocho horas. Ellos van de vacaciones por dos semanas.
Every day we work for eight hours. They go on vacation for two weeks.

Indicates periods of time during the 24-hour day: Por used before la mañana, la tarde, la noche or el día indicates an unspecified amount of time, yet it implies that whatever is taking place lasts a while (as opposed to an extremely short time). In this context, por translates as "for", "at", "during", "on" or "throughout".

Él lee tres libros por mes. El diez por ciento no aprobó el examen.
He reads three books per month. Ten percent didn't pass the exam.

Por: Substitution or Exchange

Indicates an equal exchange or trade: Por often implies an equality of the two things that it separates. Whenever we freely trade or purchase something, we do so because, at least to us,what we are giving is equal in value to that we are getting in return. In this context, por usually translates as "for."

Pagué cinco dólares por la pizza. Juan cambió su manzana por una naranja.
I paid five dollars for the pizza. Juan exchanged his apple for an orange.

Expresses substitution ("in/on behalf of," "in place of"): Anther use of por to indicate equality is any situation in which something or someone is being substituted for something or someone else. We see this in recipes, in the workplace, in the classroom, and at times when the original or principal ingredient or person is not available. In these sentences, por usually translates as "for," "in/on behalf of," or "in place of."

EL vicepresidente habla por el presidente. Sustituyo margarina por mantequilla.
The vice-president speaks on behalf of the president. I substitute margarine for butter.

Expresses thanks and gratitude: When thanking someone for something that he or she has done for you or when expressing gratitude for a gift, you use por. This is another example of por as an equalizer. This is why we say that we give thanks for a kind deed: the thanks balance the act of giving. For this use, por usually translates as "for."

Gracias por las flores. Te doy las gracias por tu ayuda.
Thank you for the flowers. I thank you for your help.

Por: Motivation

Indicates having done something or "because of" (por + infinitive): Por placed before an infinitive generally translates as "because of" or "due to" and it leads the speaker to reveal his or her motive for or reason behind something. The verb that follows must be in the infinitive. In English, this verbs translates as gerund, which means that it actually is a verb in a noun's clothing, and it always ends in -ing.

Por ganar la lotería, ellos son ricos. Due to winning the lottery, they are rich.
Él no trabaja hoy por estar enfermo. He's not working today because of his being sick.

Expresses a motive for doing something: Por in this context tells why a person does something because of a specific motive and can translate as "for" or "because of."

Vamos a la tienda por mantequilla. Reconstruimos la casa por la tormenta.
We're going to the store for butter. We're rebuilding the house because of the storm.

Tells why something or someone is a certain way (por + noun or infinitive): Por can be used to tell why something is the way it is due to or because of another event. It expresses the motive or reason behind a state of being. In these sentences, por often precedes a noun. In this context, por can translate as "for," or "due to," or "because of."

Soy más fuerte por la experiencia. Beethoven es famoso por su música.
I am stronger because of the experience. Beethoven is famous for his music.
Soy más fuerte por tener la experiencia. Ella ahorra mucho dinero por los cupones.
I am stronger for having the experience. She saves a lot of money due to coupons.

Por: Movement

Expresses means of transportation: When you want to tell hoe you are getting somewhere, you will use por before whatever mode of transportation you plan to use. Below are listed some common forms of transportation. This use of por translates as "by" or "on".

por autobús by bus por ferrocarril, tren by rail, by train
por avión by airplane por coche (carro) by car

Note: The preposition en is also used in this way: en avión, en tren, etc.

Martín va al trabajo por autobús. Viajan de Londres a París por tren.
Martín goes to work on the bus. They travel from London to Paris by train.

Expresses means of sending messages or information: To talk about sending a message, you almost certainly will use the preposition por. In this context, por can translate as "by", "on" or "via."

por computadora by computer por e-mail by e-mail
por correo by mail por fax by fax
por correo electrónico by e-mail por teléfono by phone, on the telephone

Le envío un regalo por correo. No es bueno discutir por teléfono.
I'm sending him a gift by mail. It's not good to fight on the telephone.

Indicates the point of a temporary stop: If you are stopping by someone's house or a store, or if you have a layover in a certain city, and if none of these destinations is your final one, this temporary stop can be indicated by using por. (Contrast this with the use of para to indicate final destination.) In this context, por translates as "by" or "through."

Voy a pasar por el banco antes de ir al teatro. Pasamos por Detroit en el viaje a París.
I'm going by the bank before going to the theater. We're going through Detroit on the trip to Paris.

Indicates movement in an area: While para indicates movement to or toward a destination, por implies that the person already is there and is moving around in general, nonspecific direction. In such sentences, por can mean "around," "through," "throughout," or "by."

Nos paseamos por el parque. El detective busca por la casa.
We stroll around (through) the park. The detective searches throughout the house.

Por: Emotions

Expresses a liking (or disliking) or an emotion for someone or something: When you have something tangible, such as a book, for someone, you will use para. however, when what you have or feel for someone is intangible, such as respect, you use por.
Think of it like this: when you give something tangible away, you are left with nothing; your hand is empty. But you cannot give away emotions; you can only move them around. no matter how much love you give to someone, you stillwill be filled with love. In fact, the more of an emotion that you give, the more you retain. In this context, por nearly añways translates as "for".

Juan tiene mucho amor por su esposa. Tengo respeto por mis amigos.
John has a lot of love for his wife. I have respect for my friends.

Por: Idioms

Appears in idiomatic expressions: Por is used in hundreds of idiomatic expressions. If you look in a dictionary of Spanish idiomatic usage, you will find several pages of phrases the begin with por. The following list contains some of the more commonly used expressions.

por allíaround there, that way
por aquíaround here, this way
por ejemplofor example
por eso (esto)therefore
por favoras a favor, please
por finat last, finally
por lo generalas a rule, generally
por medio deby means of
por lo menosat least
por primera vezfor the first time
por separadoseparately
por supuestoof course
por todas parteseverywhere
por todos ladosall over, everywhere, on all sides


A good image to have in mind when working with para is an arrow. Like an arrow, para goes ahead, away from its origin toward its destination, usually in a direct, straight route.
The uses of para can be cleanly placed into the following four categories: destination, purpose, deadline, and standard. With all four, which you will find in the more specific account below, the feeling is that of differentiating nouns in a sentence, of going ahead toward a specific goal or destination.

Para: Destination

Indicates real or figurative destination: Para indicates the destination of something or someone, whether that destination is real / physical or figurative / metaphorical. Para tells us where something is going, could go, or perhaps should go. In this context, para nearly always translates as "for."

Real / Physical
Este jabón es para el baño. Este teléfono es para esa oficina.
This soap is for the bathroom. This telephone is for that office.

Figurative / Metaphorical
Mi casa es buena para la fiesta. Romeo es perfecto para julieta.
My house is good for the party. Romeo is perfect for Juliet.

Expresses the recipient of an action: Para tells us not only where, but also to whom something is going. The recipient always follows para, which translates as "for" in this context.

Tengo el dinero para Juan. Estos regalos son para mí.
I have the money for John. These gifts are for me.

Indicates direction and/or final travel destination: Often when we travel, there are stops along the way before our final destination. Para concerns itself only with the end of the road, so to speak. (See the section on por for dealing with the layovers.) When discussing your travels around the world or around your home town, you will use para only to describe where you want to end up. In this context, para can mean either "to" or "for."

Los astronautas van para la luna. Salimos para la iglesia a las nueve.
The astronauts go to the moon. We leave for church at nine o'clock.

Indicates aim or objective of an action (+ profession): Para is used to indicate the final destination of your studies, or what you want to be. In universities in the United States, we often talk about a major. In Spanish, a student majoring in medicine could say, "Estudio para médico," which translates as "I'm studying to be a physician," or simply, "I'm studying medicine." The verb to be in this context is understood and therefore can be omitted. You can, if you want, include ser: Estudio para ser médico. Note that with this usage, the profession usually remains singular even when the subject is plural, as in the example to the right.

Ella estudia para electricista. Ellos estudian para carpintero.
She is studying to be an electrician. They are studying to be carpenters.

Para: Purpose

Expresses purpose (before an infinitive): The reason a thing exists is its purpose. When describing what something does, or what it is for, we use para + the appropriate verb. Because a verb cannot be conjugated after a preposition, the format will always be para + infinitive. This use of para translates as "for."

Una pluma es para escribir. Estos zapatos son para correr.
A fountain pen is for writing. These shoes are for jogging.

Tells why one does something; "in order to" (before an infinitive): When giving the reason for doing something, you use para + the appropriate infinitive. In this case, para means "to" or "in order to."

Yo como para vivir. Estudiamos para aprender.
I eat to live. We study in order to learn.

Para: Deadline

Expresses a specific time limit or deadline (in the future): When you drop your clothing at the cleaners on Monday, you probably want them by Tuesday or definitely by the end of the week. You will use para to indicate that time limit or deadline. Inthis context, para translates usually as "by"; however, it can also mean "for", "on" or "before."

Necesito la ropa para el jueves. Tenemos que hacer esto para esta noche.
I need the clothes by (for, before) Thursday. We have to do this by tonight.

Expresses alimited timespan in the future: When describing an action that will strech out over a specific period of time in the future, you use para to encompass this timespan. As a rule, this will be a generalized period of time, as opposed to a clock time of hours. This use of para translates as "for."

Él tiene un empleo para el verano. Tenemos una casa reservada para dos semanas.
He has work for the summer. We have a house reserved for two weeks.

Para: Standard

Expresses a comparison to a certain standard: When something or someone goes outside the norm or beyond what is expected, and we make a comparison, we use para to draw attention to that distinction. Para in these cases translates as "for."

Paco es alto para su edad. Hace calor para enero.
Paco is tall for his age. It's warm for January.

Expresses an opinion or personal standard: In order to say, "in my opinion," you can say, literally, "en mí opinión," or you can say more simply, "para mí." This construction works with names, as well as pronouns. In this context, para translates as "for."

Para mí, el español es hermoso. Para Paco, Portland es la mejor ciudad.
In my opinion (For me), Spanish is beautiful. In Paco's opinion (For Paco), Portland is the best city.

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