Spanish Grammar: Por vs Para

The Spanish words "por" and "para" are both literally translated as the English word "for", but they actually have a variety of meanings including by, through, on, in exchange for, because of, and in order to, among others. Consequently, they are often confused by the those tackling the Spanish language for the first time. To learn to use "por" and "para" correctly, it's important to (1) know the rules for using each one, and (2) familiarize yourself with examples of correct usage.

Basic por vs. para (motion vs. destination)

Basically, "por" is used to express motion through time or space, including (1) traveling, (2) duration of time, (3) exchange of objects, and (4) motivation for doing something. "Para," on the other hand, is used to convey destinations and end points, including (1) physical locations, (2) people/recipients, (3) goals, and (4) deadlines.

"Por" is used to express movement

He traveled through South America.
Él viajó por América del Sur.
She paid $20 in exchange for this book.
Ella pagó $20 por este libro.
My dad has to work for 10 hours tonight.
Mi padre tiene que trabajar por 10 horas esta noche.
Because of his love of animals, he wants to be a veterinarian.
Por su amor a los animales, quiere ser veterinario.

"Para" is used to convey destinations or end points

My boss left for vacation today.
Mi jefe salió para vacaciones hoy.
The food is for the poor child.
La comida es para el pobre niño.
My mother works a lot in order to provide for our family.
Mi madre trabaja mucho para mantener a mi familia.
I need the report by Monday.
Necesito el informe para el lunes.

"¿Por qué?" vs "¿Para qué?"

"Por" and "para" are also both used to form the question "Why?" "¿Por qué?" is used to express "Why?" (for what reason). "¿Para qué?" is used to express "Why?" (for what purpose). Consider the following examples.

Why do you study German?
(For what reason...?)
¿Por qué estudias alemán?
Because it's a requirement.
Porque es un requisito.
Why do you study German?
(For what purpose...?)
¿Para qué estudias alemán?
In order to be able to speak better.
Para poder hablar mejor.

It's important to learn the difference between "por" and "para" and how to use each preposition correctly. Confusing these two prepositions in speech can cause you to say something completely different than what you intended. Consider the following examples.

Fernando bought a house for Graciela.
(he bought it to give to her)
Fernando compró una casa para Graciela.
Fernando bought a house for Graciela.
(he bought it because she could not)
Fernando compró una casa por Graciela.

In addition to the explanations and examples provided above, there are many more rules of usage for "por" and "para".