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Por vs Para

Let’s learn por and para. These words tend to be very hard to master when learning Spanish as a second language, but today we’ll learn a simple framework that you can use to decide between these two words in almost any context.

Full Podcast Episode


Today the words por and para are finally going to make sense.

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

Today we’re going to learn por and para, two prepositions that tend to be very hard to master when learning Spanish as a second language.

But first, let’s review what prepositions are. These are words that always go before a noun of some type; they’re always in the “pre-position” before “food”, or any other noun or noun phrase.

We’ve already learned de and a, and before we work on por and para, let’s warm up with a couple of easier prepositions.

The first one is con , which means “with”. For example, “I went to the store with my friend” would be “I went a the store con my friend.”

Fui a la tienda con mi amiga.

Now since prepositions are all one category, or one part of speech, we hypothetically *should* be able to play the potato head game with these words. For example, we could take the sentence “I went a the store con my friend”, and change it to “I went de the store a my friend.” You COULD even say, “I went con the store a my friend.” Of course, that’s pretty silly, but you COULD do that, grammatically.

Now let’s talk about why prepositions are super fun. You’re actually allowed to take any random sentence and then add to it by throwing a preposition and a noun at the end.

For example, let’s say our sentence is “They have a dog.” We can throw a preposition and a noun at the end: They have a dog con a tail. Or maybe: They have a dog de Australia.

But remember to use the “does it make sense” test as well. For example, the preposition a usually indicates movement of some type, so it often doesn’t really work when there’s no action implied. If we tried to say “They have a dog a Australia”, it just wouldn’t make sense. In fact, you’ll often choose a preposition based on some other element of the sentence, such as a specific verb or noun, as we’ll learn in future lessons. Still, there are some very easy prepositions, such as con, that you can simply add to an existing sentence along with some noun. You can try this yourself with any random sentence: We had fun con our friends, we worked hard con a lot of coffee, we ate dessert con our meal.

The next preposition we’ll learn is very easy to use as well. The word is en, which means “at”. It CAN mean “in” or “on”, but generally speaking, it represents the most standard way to be “at” something. For example, if I say I’m en a chair, it probably means I’m on the chair. But if I say I’m en the table, it doesn’t mean I’m on the table or in the table, it just means I’m “at” the table, in a standard way.

The exception is time. In Spanish you actually never say “at” a time; you say TO a time. For example, to say “at four O’clock”, you would say “to four O’Clock”, or a four o’clock.

So practice this with a little bit of quizzing. How would you say:

They were in the room at 4:00.

They were en the room a 4:00.

Estaban en la habitación a las 4:00.

I was at a party with the girls.

I was en a party con the girls.

Estaba en una fiesta con las chicas.

Now let’s practice with prepositions in a different way. We’ll take a basic sentence and then start adding prepositional phrases at the end, a preposition plus some sort of noun. Here’s the basic sentence:

We ate the food.

Now let’s use all of our prepositions to add to it:

We ate the food con our friends.

We ate the food a 2:00.

We ate the food en the table.

We ate the food de this restaurant.

This is one of the most fun ways to start creatively adding meaning to sentences in Spanish.

All right, now that we have a pretty good foundation of how prepositions work, it’s time to start exploring some really tricky territory: por and para.

These words give English speakers a LOT of trouble, and that’s because as a rule, prepositions really don’t translate one-to-one between languages. The word con might be the easiest to translate; it almost always means “with”, but it’s also used in some other nuanced ways. All prepositions have their quirks, and por and para are two of the most tricky.

Let’s start with para. This word roughly means “for”, and it tends to imply some sort of intention, or pointing at something. If a gift is para someone, it’s intended for them.

But por… is… a problem. It means something like “by”, but it just has so many uses that we can’t reduce it to one translation. So instead, let’s think of por as a three-dimensional concept, almost its own memory palace.

Picture for a second a natural fountain you might find in the wilderness. The fountain is made of stone, and it’s pouring water from an opening at the top. We would say that the water is being produced por the fountain, since the fountain is the source of the water. Of course, you could use de here, but the word por in a context like this means something that indicates creation cause, as opposed to just origin. So when we say the water is produced por the fountain, the meaning is closer to the English word “by” rather than “of” or “from”.

Keep picturing that water fountain in your mind’s eye, and as you watch the water bubbling out of it, let’s ponder why this water exists at all. Where is the water coming from? Let’s say that this is a magical fountain, and the water is being magically produced by the stone, or por the stone. In fact, this fountain is so magical that we can say that the water exists “because of” the fountain. The word por very often means “because of”, and in fact por is very often associated with deep questions such as why something is the case.

Now there’s even more to this stone fountain and the water coming out of it. Imagine that the water that comes out is pooling around the fountain. You can say that the water is “by” the fountain, meaning “around” or “nearby”, and that’s another meaning of por. The water is por the fountain.

Now *also* imagine that this water is moving in a circle around the fountain. You could say that the water is running along the sides of the fountain, or por the fountain. In this sense, por means something like “along”.

And actually, the word por means even more things than the several meanings I’ve described. The closest summary is “by” or “because of”. As you start to practice using por, always remember this image of the water flowing out of the fountain, flowing by it, and existing “because of” it.

Here are a couple of examples:

This book was written by a young girl.

This book was written por una young girl.

Este libro fue escrito por una niña.

That was because of those problems.

Eso was por those problems.

Eso fue por esos problemas.

We ran along the street.

We ran por the street.

Nosotras corrimos por la calle.

Meanwhile, the word para is different. Whereas por indicates “because of”, para indicates “intended for”. Its easiest use is “this gift is intended for you”, or “this gift is para you”.

Este regalo es para ti.

We can visualize para, not as a bubbling fountain of water, but as an arrow, pointing at something specific, in a very direct, maybe even expectant way.

For example, something funny happens when you use either of these prepositions in relation to time. Let’s say someone tells you they want you to do something para this evening, or that they want you to do it por this evening. These mean two very different things. If they refer to doing it por this evening, they’re saying “during” the evening, in a kind of general way. Imagine the water kind of flowing around the stone. But if they say para this evening, they’re using the arrow, pointing at this evening, and telling you that that’s a due date. So the sentence “Do it para this evening” translates as “Do it by this evening.”

Hágalo para esta noche.

In this case, the word para actually gets translated into English as “by”, even though I’ve been telling you that the word por is the one that more often gets translated as “by”. But when we say “by this evening”, or para this evening, we are emphasizing pointing at it and marking a due date. This is the kind of thing that the preposition para likes to do.

So all of this abstract imagery is to help get an idea of the character of these words, sort of an intuitive feel for what they mean.

Let’s practice a couple of these time uses of por and para.

I saw him during the morning.

I lo saw por the morning.

Yo lo vi por la mañana.

(In this next example, the boss is feminine.)

The boss wants that by lunch.

La boss wants eso para lunch.

La jefa quiere eso para el almuerzo.

I don’t babysit the girl during the evenings.

I no babysit la girl por the evenings.

Yo no cuido a la niña por las noches.

So as you can see, por and para have a lot of meanings, and it *is* important to kind of learn the lists of different uses for them, but it’s also nice to get a feel for how they’re used in general. Para tends to imply pointing at something directly, but por indicates a lot of things related to this image of a bubbling fountain of water, especially “by” or “because of”.

Let’s put both of these words in one more context that demonstrates their distinct characters. Check out what happens if you put the word eso after either of these words. If you say para eso, you’re saying “intended for that”. But if you say por eso, it means “because of that”.

It turns out that the two-word combination por eso is actually extremely common in Spanish. It’s used all the time to say “because of that” or “that’s why”. For example:

“Your friend ate a lot of cake, and that’s why he feels sick.”

In these situations, you’ll use por eso — literally “Your friend ate a lot of cake, and because of that he feels sick.” “Your friend ate a lot of cake, and por eso he feels sick.” Basically, pretty much any time you see “that’s why” in English, you’ll use por eso in Spanish.

Word combinations like this are called idioms— basically, little combinations of words that native speakers use all the time. Use idioms more often and you’ll sound more like a native speaker very fast. Of course, it goes both ways — native Spanish speakers who are learning English have to learn how to say “that’s why” all the time, because of how often we say “that’s why” in English. But the Spanish version of this phrase is por eso, literally “because of that”. Practice this a lot and you’ll shortcut your way to thinking in Spanish.

I know we’ve learned a whole lot today, and we need to save *some* of our strength for tomorrow, when we’ll be learning our last three words to bring us to 30% of the Spanish language.

For now, let’s do a little bit more quizzing with our new prepositions, along with some of our vocabulary from earlier lessons.

I went to the store during the afternoon.

I went a the store por the afternoon.

Yo fui a la tienda por la tarde.

The actress is on the stage.

La actress is en the stage.

La actriz está en el escenario.

I said he was around here.

I said que he was por here.

Dije que estaba por aquí.

That won’t be for him.

Eso no will be para him.

Eso no será para él.

She ran out of there because of the fire.

She ran out de there por the fire.

Salió corriendo de allí por el fuego.

That was created by an interesting guy.

Eso was created por un interesting guy.

Eso fue creado por un tipo interesante.

I saw her in the store with her mom.

I la saw en the store con her mom.

Yo la vi en la tienda con su mamá.

I said that my fur coat is from Europe.

I said que my coat de fur is de Europe.

Dije que mi abrigo de piel es de Europa.

Maria’s son will be here by then.

El son de Maria will be here para then.

El hijo de María estará aquí para entonces.

I have to leave at 2:00 and he can’t.

I have to leave a 2:00 y he no can.

Tengo que salir a las 2:00 y él no puede.

It’s a girl that I know; that’s why she knows you.

It’s una girl que I know, por eso she te knows.

Es una chica que conozco, por eso te conoce.

He didn’t bring me along this street.

He no me brought por this street.

Él no me trajo por esta calle.

To get more practice with all of this, I highly recommend going online and using the free flashcards that accompany this lesson at LCSPodcast.com/9. As you do, you shouldn’t just work on getting these specific sentences right; you should also try modifying these sentences as much as you can by playing the “potato head game”. We’re now in a place where we can do a lot of fun things with the language, and pretty soon we’ll be doing it entirely in Spanish. Again, get more practice with this at LCSPodcast.com/9.

Tomorrow we’ll get a lot more practice with all of these things, plus we’ll learn the final words we need to reach 30% of the Spanish language.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Ximena Lama-Rondón. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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