The Spanish prepositions “por” and “para” can both be translated as “for.” There are few consistent rules about when each is appropriate, so your best bet is to study real example sentences rather than memorize rules. Accordingly, we have used two of WordBrewery’s newest features—the ability to automatically create lists of example sentences containing any word and the ability to print sentence lists as PDFs for offline study—to create the following two free documents for you to study. Each contains thirty real sentences from the news containing the words “por” or “para”:

That said, here are a few guidelines about when to use por or para1:

Some examples of when to use ‘para’

1. Para can be used to express purpose.

Los brazos son para abrazar. Arms are for hugging.
¿Para qué lo hizo? Why did he do it?

2. Para can be used to express the idea of “for someone” or “on someone’s behalf.”

Unos para los niños, otras para los padres. Some for the children, others for the parents.

2. Para is used to express a destination, e.g. “We are headed for home.”

Vamos para la universidad. We are going to college

3. Para is used in definite time phrases.

¿Estás listo para el fin de semana? Are you ready for the weekend?

4. Some idiomatic expressions use para.

An idiom is a “set phrase” whose meaning is different than its individual words might suggest. Accordingly, idioms should be learned as phrases rather than as combinations of words with separate and independent meanings.

Somos tal para cual en este sentido. We are two of a kind in this respect.
¿Estás listo para vivir tu vida digital en tres dimensiones?

Some examples of when to use ‘por’

1. Por may indicate movement:

Lo único que quiero es poder caminar tranquila por la calle. All I want is to be able to walk peacefully down the street.

2. Por may express an indefinite or general period of time:

Adiós a las clases por la tarde. Farewell to afternoon classes.

3. As with para, some idiomatic expressions use por.

These should be memorized as phrases:

In the PDF of example sentences containing the word por, for example, we find the following phrases:

¿Por qué lo ha hecho? *Why did he/she do it?
<Name>, por tanto, “lo tenía todo”. <Name>, therefore, had it all.
Todo eso está por ver. All that remains to be seen.
Vamos a por todas! Let’s go for it all1

Additional resources:

  1. See John Butt and Carmen Benjamin, A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish 504–11 (McGraw Hill, 4th ed. 2004)