As well as its two verbs “to know,” and two verbs “to be,” Spanish has two different words that can be translated as “for” and which occasionally cause some confusion for people learning the language.
The principal difficulty can be illustrated in the following phrases:
Lo compré para ti – I bought it for you; and
Lo hice por ti – I did it for you.
The difference is that “para” denotes purpose or end use; while “por” expresses motive or reason for something.
Por is also used to mean on behalf of, or because of. Hablo por mí – I speak for myself. Me apuro por temor a llegar tarde – I am hurrying for fear of arriving late.
Por also means by, through, or about. Tres por cuatro – Three by four. Caminar por la ciudad – To walk through or about the city.
Para translates as “to” or “in order to” when followed by a verb in its infinitive form. Trabajo para ganar dinero – I work to earn money; but “so that” when followed by que and a verb in the subjunctive: lo digo para que sepas – I say it so that you know.
In some phrases, the two words can be interchangeable, such as por siempre and para siempre – both mean forever. “Forever and ever” is often rendered por siempre y para siempre.
Both words can also be used with qué to mean “why?” although there is a subtle difference:
¿Para qué preguntas? —Why do you ask?— in the sense of: for what purpose do you ask?
¿Por qué preguntas? —Why do you ask?— in the sense of: for what reason do you ask?
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