When to Use Para or Por in Spanish

Since I’ve started studying Spanish, I’ve had a little difficulty keeping straight when to use por and when to use para. It shouldn’t be that confusing, since they both mean “for,” right?

Well not exactly. It’s a little tricky keeping track of when to use por vs. para, but it’s really not that complicated if you keep a couple things in mind.

Students in Spain taking a break.

Image Source

The Big Picture

Before you start memorizing any rules, remember this simple high-level concept:

Por is all about the journey, while para is all about the destination.

That’s a really general statement, but it’s a good way to help you get started understanding the difference.

Por is about going through, along, or by something. But para is about getting to an endpoint or an end goal.

Visualize this:

  • You’re walking through a city, and it’s taking 2 hours. That’s por.
  • But you’re heading to the library, and you want to be there at 3:00 pm. That’s para.

At heart, that’s the difference between the two words.

The Details

Unfortunately, it gets a little more complicated than that. There are specific situations and scenarios when por or para are used specifically.

There are dozens of little “rules” out there about when to use one over the other. But honestly, you probably don’t need to memorize them all. I think that 80% of most learners’ confusion can be eliminated by memorizing 8 different scenarios, something you can do in afternoon.

These 8 scenarios are in the following if/then table:

Por or Para? (Click to view larger)

Not too bad, right? (I knew my career as a technical writer making if/then charts would come in handy someday.)

Even More Details

You can memorize more of these rules if you want, but I really think it’s more useful if you just pay attention to how people speak, and try to copy them. There are some phrases that use por that would sound absolutely wrong if you tried to use para instead:

  • por ejemplo (for example)
  • por ciento (percent)
  • ¿Por qué? (why?)
  • por favor (please)

But if you’ve spent even a little time studying Spanish, you’d never say any of those phrases with para.

With grammar, it’s useful to learn a little actively, but it’s better to absorb it via exposure.

¡Gracias por escucharme!


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