Amazing as it seems, I haven’t yet written about the difference between “por” and “para” in Spanish. Considering the fact that I’m getting near the two hundred mark of what will eventually become a five-volume series of “Step by Step Spanish” articles, that’s quite an achievement, especially as it’s a question that comes up frequently in class.
So, I’m now going to compare and contrast the uses of POR and PARA in three ways, according to three different concepts. Before you throw up your hands in horror, just think for a while about how you would explain the use of the words “for” and “to” to someone who didn’t speak much English. Believe me, that would be much more complicated than what we are going to do now. Firstly, we use “por” to express the reason for something and “para” to express the purpose for something. When we ask “¿Por qué?” (Why?), we are actually asking “For what reason?”, that is, what is the cause of something. There is another question which is “¿Para qué?” which also means “Why?” but in the sense of “what for?”, that is, “For what purpose?” “Por” on its own in this sense can be translated as “because of ”. “¿Por qué llegas tarde?” (Why are you late?) “Por el tráfico” (Because of the traffic) – in other word expressing the reason for, or cause of, our lateness. “Para” on the other hand expresses “purpose”. “¿Para qué usas esta herramienta?” (What do you use this tool for?) “Para cortar madera” (To cut wood) – in other words, for the purpose of cutting word. The second concept is the contrast between “exchange” on the one hand, and something going in one direction, i.e. not being exchanged, on the other. This is easier to understand with examples. “Compré un libro por 20 euros” (I bought a book for – in exchange for – 20 euros). “Compré un libro para mi marido” (I bought a book for – as a present for - my husband). Therefore, if you say “compré un libro por mi marido” you are saying: “I bought a book in exchange for my husband” which, as tempting as it might sound, is not a deal usually offered by bookshops. Thirdly we have a time-related concept. “Por” refers to a period of time whereas “para” refers to a time deadline. The classic mistake is when we want to say: “I’m going to England for two weeks” which is: “Voy a Inglaterra por dos semanas”. “Two weeks” is a period of time so we must use “por”. However, when “for” refers to a specific time in the future we understanding with someone, we refer to this as an “entendimiento”. We can also use the reflexive verb “entenderse” in this context. For example: “No pude entenderme con mi vecino” (I couldnt´ reach an understanding with my neighbour). To make yourself understood is “hacerse entender”. There is also a common phrase “dar a entender” which means “to give the impression” or “to lead (someone) to believe”. The phrase literally translates as “to give to understand” and is therefore a good illustration of how tricky translation can be sometimes!
The opposite of “entender” is “malentender” (to misunderstand – or literally, to understand badly) and as in the above Guardia Civil story, we should always try to avoid “malentendidos” (misunderstandings). At the end of an explanation, when you want to let someone know that you have actually understood what they have told you, you can say “entendido” (understood!) However, if you havent´ got a clue what they are talking about you can always say “No entiendo nada” (I dont´ understand anything). use “para” as in “Los deberes son para martes”. The homework is for Tuesday. “Llegarán para las dos”. “They will arrive for (or by)two oclock”.´
In addition to these three main concepts, there are quite a lot of idiomatic uses of “por” and “para” (especially “por”) which you just have to get familiar with one by one. Many of them you already know – “por favor”; “para mí”; “por teléfono”; “gracias por …”. Another meaning of “por” is “by” or “times” as when we are saying measurements. “2m x 2m” would be said using “por” and the texting symbol for “por” is an “x”. On the other hand, if you can’t get to grips with any of this, you can always shout out “¡Por dios!” but definitely not “para dios”, if you don’t mind.