Stop Confusing Por & Para – Learn Your Way Around the Spanish Supermarket

September 1, 2016
<div class="mistake translation"><p><span class="sp">¡Hola! <span class="mistake">Por mí</span> unos tacos al pastor, por favor.</span><br><span class="en">Should have said <span class="sp"><strong>para mí</strong></span></span></p></div><p>Meet young Mike McCurley.</p><p>He is celebrating his first spring break in Cancun and is currently trying to order some tacos. It looks like Miss Lopez's 3rd period Spanish class is a distant memory, but that's okay because today we're going to learn the secret to choosing correctly between <span class="sp">por</span> and <span class="sp">para</span>.</p><!--more--><h2>What aisle are you on?</h2><p>Think of Spanish as an unfamiliar supermarket. You might have visited a few times, but you still don't know where most things are. You're used to the English supermarket (where <span class="en">for</span> is very clearly labeled), and you wonder what crazy rules could explain the seemingly random locations of <span class="sp">por</span> and <span class="sp">para</span> in the Spanish one.</p><p>Here's the reason why you're confused: you're focusing on the words instead of the aisles.</p><p><strong>Before you can choose between <span class="sp">por</span> and <span class="sp">para</span> you need to know what aisle you're on</strong>.</p><p>These are the five confusing aisles, the ones that contain both <span class="sp">por</span> and <span class="sp">para</span>:</p><ol><li><a href="#purpose_vs_reason"><strong>Purpose</strong></a> (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Reason (<span class="sp">por</span>)</li><li><a href="#recipient_vs_favor_recipient"><strong>Normal recipient</strong></a> (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Favor recipient (<span class="sp">por</span>)</li><li><a href="#moment_vs_amount"><strong>Moment in time</strong></a> (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Amount of time (<span class="sp">por</span>)</li><li><a href="#destination_vs_route"><strong>Destination</strong></a> (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Route (<span class="sp">por</span>)</li><li><a href="#opinion_vs_indifference"><strong>Opinion</strong></a> (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Indifference (<span class="sp">por</span>)</li></ol><p>We will look at them one by one, but first <strong>realize how much this simplifies things</strong>: if you're not in any of these five aisles (or if you are, but <span class="sp">para</span> doesn't fit), <strong>use <span class="sp">por</span></strong>.</p><p>That's it.</p><h2><a name="purpose_vs_reason"></a> Aisle 1: Purpose (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Reason (<span class="sp">por</span>)</h2><p>What's the difference between these two sentences?</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">He pagado 20 euros <strong>para</strong> comprarme un mísero bocadillo.</span><br><span class="en">I (have) paid 20 euros to buy (myself) a measly Spanish sandwich</span></p><p><span class="sp">He pagado 20 euros <strong>por</strong> comprarme un mísero bocadillo.</span><br><span class="en">I (have) paid 20 euros for having bought (myself) a measly Spanish sandwich</span></p></div><p>To English eyes, they might seem pretty similar; but to Spanish eyes, <span class="sp">por</span> and <span class="sp">para</span> are like big arrows pointing to the most important part of the sentence:</p><ol><li><span class="sp"><strong>para</strong></span>: The <strong>purpose</strong> for paying 20 euros was to buy a sandwich (so I could eat it).</li><li><span class="sp"><strong>por</strong></span>: The <strong>reason</strong> why I paid 20 euros was that I bought a sandwich. </li></ol><p>Let's look at another example:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Estoy buscando un profesor de español (¿por o para?) clases privadas. </span><br><span class="en">I'm looking for a teacher of Spanish for private lessons</span></p></div><p>Is <span class="sp">clases privadas</span> a reason or a purpose? It could be both: a purpose (<em>I'm looking for a teacher <strong>in order to get private lessons</strong></em>) or a reason (<em>I'm looking for a teacher because <strong>I want private lessons</strong></em>).</p><h3>Make implicit verbs explicit</h3><p>The key to decoding this sentence is to realize that the verb that indicates the purpose is implicit, so let's make it explicit:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Estoy buscando un profesor de español <strong>para recibir</strong> clases privadas.</span><br><span class="en">I'm looking for a teacher of Spanish to receive private lessons</span></p></div><p><em>Receiving private lessons</em> is a purpose, so we use <span class="sp">para</span>. But <em>needing private lessons</em> is a reason:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Estoy buscando un profesor de español <strong>por necesidad de</strong> clases privadas.</span><br><span class="en">I'm looking for a teacher of Spanish for necessity of private lessons</span></p></div><p>Anyone who worded their ads like that was probably born before the printing press, but I guess they would be technically correct. A more common alternative is to use <span class="sp">por</span>'s fancy cousin <span class="sp">porque</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Estoy buscando un profesor de español <strong>porque</strong> necesito clases privadas.</span><br><span class="en">I'm looking for a teacher of Spanish because I need private lessons</span></p></div><p>Lastly, you don't always have to be on the receiving end of this trend: you can fight fire with fire by doing some verb omitting of your own. For example, you could say:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">¿Nos compramos una botella <strong>para</strong> el viaje?</span><br><span class="en">(Do you want us to) buy (ourselves) a bottle for the trip?</span></p></div><p>That way it will be up to your Spanish travel companion to make your implicit purpose explicit:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">¿Nos compramos una botella <strong>para</strong> (beberla durante) el viaje?</span><br><span class="en">(Do you want us to) buy (ourselves) a bottle (so we can drink it) during the trip?</span></p></div><h2><a name="recipient_vs_favor_recipient"></a> Aisle 2: Normal recipient (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Favor recipient (<span class="sp">por</span>)</h2><p>Welcome to the next-most-important <span class="sp">por</span>/<span class="sp">para</span> aisle. It's actually pretty similar to the first one, but instead of asking <span class="sp">¿para qué?</span> (purpose) or <span class="sp">¿por qué?</span> (reason), we're asking <span class="sp">¿para <strong>quién</strong>?</span> (normal recipient) or <span class="sp">¿por <strong>quién</strong>?</span> (favor recipient).</p><p>Here is the most famous <strong>normal recipient</strong> example–ordering interaction:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Camarero.—¿Les traigo algo de beber?</span><br><span class="en">Waiter: "(Do you want me to) bring you something to drink?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">Valeria.—Yo quiero un tinto de verano.</span><br><span class="en">Valeria: "I want a non-touristy sangria"</span></p><p><span class="sp">Esteban.—<strong>Para</strong> mí también.</span><br><span class="en">Esteban: "For me as well"</span></p></div><p>Esteban will be the recipient of the <span class="sp">tinto</span>, but he could have also cowardly asked Valeria to order for him, thereby becoming a <strong>favor recipient</strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Esteban.—Me apetece un tinto de verano, pero me da vergüenza pedírselo al camarero.</span><br><span class="en">Esteban: "I (feel like getting) a non-touristy sangria, but it gives me embarrassment (to) ask it to the waiter"</span></p><p><span class="sp">Valeria.—Mira que eres tímido. Ya lo pido yo <strong>por</strong> ti.</span><br><span class="en">Valeria: "(It's shocking) how shy you are. (Don't worry) I'll order it for you"</span></p></div><p>I'm stretching the concept of a <span class="sp"><strong>favor</strong></span> to comfortably fit two different things: doing something <strong>in someone's place</strong> and doing something <strong>for someone's sake</strong>. Here is a better example of the latter:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Llevo toda la vida sacrificándome <strong>por</strong> mis hijos y ahora los muy malditos me han escondido los cigarrillos.</span><br><span class="en">I've spent my entire life sacrificing myself for my children and now those (damn bastards) have hidden away my cigarettes</span></p></div><p>If the sacrificing had been done <span class="sp"><strong>para mis hijos</strong></span>, the general meaning would remain the same, but the listener would have to come up with the implicit verb, which might not be obvious in this context.</p><p>The last thing to keep in mind is that a normal recipient can be a single person (including <span class="sp">nadie</span>, <span class="en">the lack of people</span>), a group of people (including <span class="sp">todos</span>, <span class="en">everyone</span>), a single object (including <span class="sp">todo</span>, <span class="en">everything</span>) or a group of objects (including <span class="sp">nada</span>, <span class="en">the lack of objects</span>):</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Este champú es perfecto <strong>para</strong> pelos grasos.</span><br><span class="en">This shampoo is perfect for oily (hairs).</span></p><p><span class="sp">He comprado este cuadro <strong>para</strong> el salón de mi casa.</span><br><span class="en">I have bought this painting for the living room of my house.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Trabajo <strong>para</strong> Tesla porque me gustan los coches eléctricos.</span><br><span class="en">I work for Tesla because I like (the) electric cars.</span></p></div><p>Oily hairs receive shampoo. The living room receives the painting. Tesla receives my labor.</p><h2><a name="moment_vs_amount"></a> Aisle 3: Moment in time (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Amount of time (<span class="sp">por</span>)</h2><p>Ok, new aisle! Everything you learned in the previous two is completely irrelevant now, so let's cleanse our palates with a lemon sorbet and dig in.</p><p>When we're talking about time, we use <span class="sp">para</span> to focus on a specific moment (especially a deadline) and <span class="sp">por</span> to focus on the duration of the action. Here are two straightforward examples for each:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Para</strong> cuándo quieres que te envíe el maldito informe?</span><br><span class="en">"(By) when do you want that I send you the damn report?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Lo quiero <strong>para</strong> el jueves, sin falta, que el viernes me largo a Brasil.</span><br><span class="en">"I want it by the Thursday, no excuses, (since) on Friday I'm heading off to Brazil."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Por</strong> cuánto tiempo vas a estar de vacaciones?</span><br><span class="en">"For how long are you going to be on vacation?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Por</strong> un par de semanitas, que falta me hacen.</span><br><span class="en">"For a couple of (little) weeks, (it's true that) I really need them."</span></p></div><p>The <span class="sp">para</span> in the first two sentences is optional: you could omit it, and they would still work, but you'd be missing out on the deadlineyness feeling that <span class="sp">para</span> brings to the party.</p><p>The only time when <span class="sp">para</span> is not optional is when we omit the main verb, or when we use <span class="sp">ser</span> as a lazy stand-in for a more accurate verb:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Para</strong> cuándo son los deberes?</span><br><span class="en">"(By) when are the homeworks (due)?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Son <strong>para</strong> el jueves.</span><br><span class="en">"They're (due) on the Thursday."</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">Son</span> is just a shortcut for <span class="sp">deben estar terminados</span> (<span class="en">should be finished</span>). If you remove <span class="sp">para</span>, the sentences make no sense:</p><div class="mistake translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿Cuándo son los deberes?</span><br><span class="en">"When are the homeworks?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Son el jueves.</span><br><span class="en">"They're the Thursday."</span></p></div><p>The <span class="sp">por</span> in the third and fourth sentences (<span class="sp">¿Por cuánto tiempo…?</span>, <span class="sp">Por un par de semanitas…</span>) is optional as well, and unlike <span class="sp">para</span>, you're not really missing out on expressivity if you get rid of it. Depending on the region of spacetime where you native Spanish friends grew up, they might prefer to use <span class="sp">¿por cuánto tiempo?</span>, <span class="sp">¿durante cuánto tiempo?</span>, or simply <span class="sp">¿cuánto tiempo?</span> They're pretty interchangeable, so go with whatever they use.</p><p>Before we leave this aisle, let's linger a bit by looking at time expressions that contain <span class="sp">por</span>: <span class="sp">por la mañana</span>, <span class="sp">por la tarde</span>, <span class="sp">por hoy</span>, etc. You might be tempted to think that these refer to a specific "moment in time", and would therefore require <span class="sp">para</span>, but they don't.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Estará todo listo <strong>para</strong> mañana <strong>por</strong> la mañana.</span><br><span class="en">Everything will be ready by tomorrow (in the) morning.</span></p></div><p>The first <span class="sp">mañana</span> is the deadline, and we use <span class="sp">para</span>; the second <span class="sp">mañana</span> refers to the period of time between the night and the afternoon, therefore it's an <em>amount of time</em>, and we use <span class="sp">por</span>.</p><h2><a name="destination_vs_route"></a> Aisle 4: Destination (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs. Route (<span class="sp">por</span>)</h2><p>This is an easy aisle. It's where you want to be if you want to talk about geographical movement. <span class="sp">Para</span> is used for destinations and <span class="sp">por</span> for other things related to routes, locations, and means of transport.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">La carretera que pasa <strong>por</strong> Cartagena sigue <strong>para</strong> Barranquilla.</span><br><span class="en">The road that passes through Cartagena continues to Barranquilla.</span></p></div><p>In this aisle, <span class="sp">para</span> is almost perfectly interchangeable with <span class="sp">a</span>. These sentences mean exactly the same:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">El vuelo <strong>para</strong> Buenos Aires ha sido cancelado <strong>por</strong> el mal tiempo.</span><br><span class="sp">El vuelo <strong>a</strong> Buenos Aires ha sido cancelado <strong>por</strong> el mal tiempo.</span><br><span class="en">The flight to Buenos Aires has been canceled due to (the) bad weather.</span></p></div><p>The <span class="sp">por</span> in that sentence is a reason (<span class="sp">por el mal tiempo</span>), so it belongs in aisle 1. In this aisle, <span class="sp">por</span> is used to talk about the route:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Estábamos corriendo <strong>por</strong> el centro de Madrid y decidimos pasar <strong>por</strong> la Puerta de Alcalá <strong>para</strong> ir <strong>por</strong> el Parque del Retiro, en vez de <strong>por</strong> la carretera.</span><br><span class="en">We were running in the center of Madrid and we decided to pass (by) the Gate of Alcalá (in order) to go (running through) the Retiro Park, instead of (running on) the road.</span></p></div><p>Just to keep you on your toes: the <span class="sp">para</span> in that sentence is a purpose (<span class="sp">para ir a correr</span>), so it also belongs in aisle 1.</p><h2><a name="opinion_vs_indifference"></a> Aisle 5: Opinion (<span class="sp">para</span>) vs Indifference (<span class="sp">por</span>)</h2><p>This aisle houses key opinion leaders (<span class="sp">para</span>) and jaded complainers (<span class="sp">por</span>).</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Esta es la mejor playa de toda la isla. Al menos <strong>para</strong> mí.</span><br><span class="en">"This is the best beach in the whole island. At least for me it is."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Pues <strong>para</strong> mí es de las peores.</span><br><span class="en">"(Well), to me, this is one of the worst ones."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—A ver. Es verdad que está un poco sucia, pero sigue siendo preciosa.</span><br><span class="en">"Let's see. It's true that it's a bit dirty, but it's still beautiful."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Por</strong> mí, como si la llenan de cemento y la convierten en un parking. </span><br><span class="en">(If it were up to me), (I couldn't care less if) they filled it up with cement and turned it into a parking lot.</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">Por {persona}</span> (<span class="sp">por mí</span>, <span class="sp">por ti</span>, <span class="sp">por María</span>) is actually an abbreviation for <span class="sp">si fuera por {persona}</span> (<span class="en">if it were up to {person}</span>). Adding <span class="sp">como si</span> (loosely translated as <span class="en">I couldn't care less if</span>) gives the sentence its strong hypothetical smell.</p><p>It's no big deal if you confuse this opinion-<span class="sp">para</span> with the recipient-<span class="sp">para</span> in aisle 2 (since they're both <span class="sp">para</span>), but they mean very different things:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Estos donuts son <strong>para</strong> mis hijos.</span><br><span class="en">These donuts are for my children (normal recipients)</span></p><p><span class="sp">Estos donuts son lo mejor <strong>para</strong> mis hijos.</span><br><span class="en">These donuts are the best (thing) for my children (opinion)</span></p></div><h2>Shelf 1: The Considering (<span class="sp">para</span>)</h2><p>Here, you can think of <span class="sp">para</span> as <em>considering</em>. It doesn't deserve a full aisle because it doesn't have a closely-related <span class="sp">por</span> alternative, but I'm including it here because it is the only remaining <span class="sp">para</span> usage we haven't covered:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿Invitas tú?</span><br><span class="en">"Are you paying (for this)?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Hay que ver lo tacaño que eres <strong>para</strong> lo mucho que ganas.</span><br><span class="en">"(It's shocking) how stingy you are, considering how much you make."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Para</strong> lo poco que nos vemos, podrías ser más simpático conmigo.</span><br><span class="en">"Considering how rarely we see each other, you could be nicer with me."</span></p></div><h2>Bonus: The Missing Aisle</h2><p>One of the most frustrating <span class="sp">por</span> and <span class="sp">para</span> shopping experiences is spending an hour deciding which one to use, and then learning that neither was needed.</p><p>This usually happens with phrasal verbs like <em>looking for</em> and <em>waiting for</em>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Estoy <strong>buscando a</strong> mi hijo, Robertito.</span><br><span class="en">"I'm <strong>looking for</strong> my son, Robertito."</span><br><span class="sp">—Menos mal. Llevo una hora <strong>esperando</strong> a que alguien venga a buscarlo.</span><br><span class="en">"(Thank goodness). (I've been) <strong>waiting for</strong> an hour (for someone to) come (get him)."</span></p></div><p>The best way to avoid adding English-specific <span class="sp">por</span>'s and <span class="sp">para</span>'s is to immerse yourself in Spanish alternatives and develop your literal-translation Spidey sense.</p><p>That's enough shopping for one day.</p><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>Learning a long list of <span class="sp">por</span> use cases and then another for <span class="sp">para</span> is as fun as building a house of cards on a rickety train ride.</p><p>A better approach is to focus on the five <span class="sp">por</span>/<span class="sp">para</span> aisles, to <strong>figure out which one you're in</strong>, and then to determine which of the two alternatives makes more sense. If you're not in any of the 5 aisles, use <span class="sp">por</span>.</p><p>We've covered a lot of ground. Let's see how taco-ordering Mike is doing after our tour:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Para</strong> quién son estos tacos al pastor?</span><br><span class="en">"For whom are these 'al pastor' tacos?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡<strong>Para</strong> mí! Esta vez no me equivoco. Tengo que usar <em>para</em> porque yo soy el que los <strong>recibe</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">"For me! This time I'm not mistaking myself. I have to use <span class="sp">para</span> because I am the one who receives them."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Muy bien, señor. Ahora apártese <strong>para</strong> que los demás puedan pedir su comida.</span><br><span class="en">"Very good, sir. Now get out of the way so that others can order their food."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Ah, y ese <em>para</em> indica el <strong>motivo</strong>. Si fuera una <strong>razón</strong> sería «<strong>porque</strong> los demás quieren pedir su comida».</span><br><span class="en">"Ah, and that <span class="sp">para</span> indicates the purpose. If it was a reason it would be 'because the others want to order their food'"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Hágalo <strong>por</strong> lo que quiera, pero hágalo ya, por favor.</span><br><span class="en">"Do it for whatever you want, but do it now, please."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Exacto: <em>por lo que quiera</em> es otra <strong>razón</strong>. En mi <strong>opinión</strong>, <em>por</em> y <em>para</em> no guardan secretos <strong>para</strong> usted. </span><br><span class="en">"That's it: for whatever you want is another reason. In my opinion, <span class="sp">por</span> and <span class="sp">para</span> keep no secrets from you."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—El único secreto que desconozco es <strong>por</strong> cuánto tiempo se va a quedar aquí molestándome.</span><br><span class="en">"The only secret that I'm still unaware about is for how long you are going to remain here, annoying me."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Entendido. Ese <em>por</em> indica una cantidad de tiempo. Un momento en el tiempo sería «estamos aquí <strong>para</strong> cuando quiera volver».</span><br><span class="en">"Got it. That <span class="sp">por</span> indicates an amount of time. A moment in time would be 'we (will be) here for (the moment when you decide that) you want to come back'"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Por</strong> mí, como si vuelve <strong>para</strong> Navidad, pero no le quiero ver más <strong>por</strong> aquí.</span><br><span class="en">"(If it were up to me), (I couldn't care less) if you came back for Christmas, but I don't want to see you here again."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Vale, el primer <em>por</em> es una clara muestra de <strong>indiferencia</strong>, el <em>para</em> es otro <strong>momento en el tiempo</strong> y el segundo <em>por</em> describe una <strong>ruta</strong>. Voy <strong>para</strong> el pasillo de <strong>destino</strong>, que es el único que me falta.</span><br><span class="en">"Ok, the first <span class="sp">por</span> is a clear sign of indifference, the <span class="sp">para</span> is another moment in time, and the second <span class="sp">por</span> describes a route. I'm going to the destination aisle, (since that) is the only (one) that (I'm missing)."</span></p></div><p>Good job, Mike. You can go back to eating your tacos, but leave that poor food vendor alone.</p><p>The Spanish supermarket map we have gone through is not the territory. You'll still have to run up and down the aisles multiple times, talk to a ton of Spanish people and make a bunch of mistakes before you get it right 100% of the time.</p><p>Hopefully, reading this will help you make <strong>more useful mistakes</strong>; that is, mistakes that you can <strong>explain</strong>, and mistakes that you are <strong>less likely to make</strong> in the future.</p>