If you consider por and para in English, they could mean: for, by, through, in, during, across, towards, instead of, on behalf of, etc. But, there is a simpler way to think about these prepositions.
There is a decision model (or hack) you can use to guess which preposition (por or para) is right for a given situation.
Of course, the decision model won’t work in every possible scenario. But, it will help you a lot!
The idea is this:
por → due to
para → in order to
This graph also highlights the idea further by showing that ‘due to’ could refer to motivation from the past and ‘in order to’ could refer to a goal for the future:
Let’s look at a simple example to see how this hack works.
Imagine you are going to university to study medicine and someone asks you:
Why are you studying medicine?
To demonstrate the hack, consider these two possible answers:
- Your parents wanted to you to study medicine
- You really want to become a doctor
If you want to give the first answer, you need to say you are studying medicine ‘due to’ the pressure applied by your parents. You could then answer the question as follows:
English: I’m studying medicine for my parents (due to my parents).
Español: Estudio medicina por mis padres.
To give the second answer, if you want to say you are studying medicine ‘in order to’ become a doctor, you can say:
English: I’m studying medicine in order to be a doctor.
Español: Estudio medicina para ser médico.
In addition, to help you think about this idea in one more step, you can also consider a third situation:
3. You have always wanted to be a doctor
Now, should you use por or para? Are you studing ‘due to’ the desire or ‘in order to’ the desire?
In this third scenario, you are now referring to a motivation from your past (similar to the parent’s motivation from the past), so you should go with ‘due to’ and por:
English: I’m studying medicine due to my desire to be a doctor.
Español: Estudio medicina por mi deseo de ser médico.
Furthermore, you can also consider how to ask the original question in Spanish to get these answers:
English: Why are you studying medicine? (what is the motivation)
Español: ¿Por qué estudias medicina?
English: What are you studying medicine for? (what is the outcome or purpose)
Español: ¿Para qué estudias medicina?
Whenever you can’t remember the uses of por and para, and need to make a guess, think about whether the idea you need to express is about a motivation from the past or an outcome for the future.
Now with this simple hack in mind, let’s look at the individual uses of por and para in more detail.