¡Hola! Por mí unos tacos al pastor, por favor.
Should have said para mí

Meet young Mike McCurley.

He is celebrating his first spring break in Cancun and is currently trying to order some tacos. It looks like Miss Lopez’s 3rd period Spanish class is a distant memory, but that’s okay because today we’re going to learn the secret to choosing correctly between por and para.

What aisle are you on?

Think of Spanish as an unfamiliar supermarket. You might have visited a few times, but you still don’t know where most things are. You’re used to the English supermarket (where for is very clearly labeled), and you wonder what crazy rules could explain the seemingly random locations of por and para in the Spanish one.

Here’s the reason why you’re confused: you’re focusing on the words instead of the aisles.

Before you can choose between por and para you need to know what aisle you’re on.

These are the five confusing aisles, the ones that contain both por and para:

  1. Purpose (para) vs. Reason (por)
  2. Normal recipient (para) vs. Favor recipient (por)
  3. Moment in time (para) vs. Amount of time (por)
  4. Destination (para) vs. Route (por)
  5. Opinion (para) vs. Indifference (por)

We will look at them one by one, but first realize how much this simplifies things: if you’re not in any of these five aisles (or if you are, but para doesn’t fit), use por.

That’s it.

Aisle 1: Purpose (para) vs. Reason (por)

What’s the difference between these two sentences?

He pagado 20 euros para comprarme un mísero bocadillo.
I (have) paid 20 euros to buy (myself) a measly Spanish sandwich

He pagado 20 euros por comprarme un mísero bocadillo.
I (have) paid 20 euros for having bought (myself) a measly Spanish sandwich

To English eyes, they might seem pretty similar; but to Spanish eyes, por and para are like big arrows pointing to the most important part of the sentence:

  1. para: The purpose for paying 20 euros was to buy a sandwich (so I could eat it).
  2. por: The reason why I paid 20 euros was that I bought a sandwich.

Let’s look at another example:

Estoy buscando un profesor de español (¿por o para?) clases privadas.
I’m looking for a teacher of Spanish for private lessons

Is clases privadas a reason or a purpose? It could be both: a purpose (I’m looking for a teacher in order to get private lessons) or a reason (I’m looking for a teacher because I want private lessons).

Make implicit verbs explicit

The key to decoding this sentence is to realize that the verb that indicates the purpose is implicit, so let’s make it explicit:

Estoy buscando un profesor de español para recibir clases privadas.
I’m looking for a teacher of Spanish to receive private lessons

Receiving private lessons is a purpose, so we use para. But needing private lessons is a reason:

Estoy buscando un profesor de español por necesidad de clases privadas.
I’m looking for a teacher of Spanish for necessity of private lessons

Anyone who worded their ads like that was probably born before the printing press, but I guess they would be technically correct. A more common alternative is to use por‘s fancy cousin porque:

Estoy buscando un profesor de español porque necesito clases privadas.
I’m looking for a teacher of Spanish because I need private lessons

Lastly, you don’t always have to be on the receiving end of this trend: you can fight fire with fire by doing some verb omitting of your own. For example, you could say:

¿Nos compramos una botella para el viaje?
(Do you want us to) buy (ourselves) a bottle for the trip?

That way it will be up to your Spanish travel companion to make your implicit purpose explicit:

¿Nos compramos una botella para (beberla durante) el viaje?
(Do you want us to) buy (ourselves) a bottle (so we can drink it) during the trip?

Aisle 2: Normal recipient (para) vs. Favor recipient (por)

Welcome to the next-most-important por/para aisle. It’s actually pretty similar to the first one, but instead of asking ¿para qué? (purpose) or ¿por qué? (reason), we’re asking ¿para quién? (normal recipient) or ¿por quién? (favor recipient).

Here is the most famous normal recipient example–ordering interaction:

Camarero.—¿Les traigo algo de beber?
Waiter: “(Do you want me to) bring you something to drink?”

Valeria.—Yo quiero un tinto de verano.
Valeria: “I want a non-touristy sangria”

Esteban.—Para mí también.
Esteban: “For me as well”

Esteban will be the recipient of the tinto, but he could have also cowardly asked Valeria to order for him, thereby becoming a favor recipient:

Esteban.—Me apetece un tinto de verano, pero me da vergüenza pedírselo al camarero.
Esteban: “I (feel like getting) a non-touristy sangria, but it gives me embarrassment (to) ask it to the waiter”

Valeria.—Mira que eres tímido. Ya lo pido yo por ti.
Valeria: “(It’s shocking) how shy you are. (Don’t worry) I’ll order it for you”

I’m stretching the concept of a favor to comfortably fit two different things: doing something in someone’s place and doing something for someone’s sake. Here is a better example of the latter:

Llevo toda la vida sacrificándome por mis hijos y ahora los muy malditos me han escondido los cigarrillos.
I’ve spent my entire life sacrificing myself for my children and now those (damn bastards) have hidden away my cigarettes

If the sacrificing had been done para mis hijos, the general meaning would remain the same, but the listener would have to come up with the implicit verb, which might not be obvious in this context.

The last thing to keep in mind is that a normal recipient can be a single person (including nadie, the lack of people), a group of people (including todos, everyone), a single object (including todo, everything) or a group of objects (including nada, the lack of objects):

Este champú es perfecto para pelos grasos.
This shampoo is perfect for oily (hairs).

He comprado este cuadro para el salón de mi casa.
I have bought this painting for the living room of my house.

Trabajo para Tesla porque me gustan los coches eléctricos.
I work for Tesla because I like (the) electric cars.

Oily hairs receive shampoo. The living room receives the painting. Tesla receives my labor.

Aisle 3: Moment in time (para) vs. Amount of time (por)

Ok, new aisle! Everything you learned in the previous two is completely irrelevant now, so let’s cleanse our palates with a lemon sorbet and dig in.

When we’re talking about time, we use para to focus on a specific moment (especially a deadline) and por to focus on the duration of the action. Here are two straightforward examples for each:

—¿Para cuándo quieres que te envíe el maldito informe?
“(By) when do you want that I send you the damn report?”

—Lo quiero para el jueves, sin falta, que el viernes me largo a Brasil.
“I want it by the Thursday, no excuses, (since) on Friday I’m heading off to Brazil.”

—¿Por cuánto tiempo vas a estar de vacaciones?
“For how long are you going to be on vacation?”

Por un par de semanitas, que falta me hacen.
“For a couple of (little) weeks, (it’s true that) I really need them.”

The para in the first two sentences is optional: you could omit it, and they would still work, but you’d be missing out on the deadlineyness feeling that para brings to the party.

The only time when para is not optional is when we omit the main verb, or when we use ser as a lazy stand-in for a more accurate verb:

—¿Para cuándo son los deberes?
“(By) when are the homeworks (due)?”

—Son para el jueves.
“They’re (due) on the Thursday.”

Son is just a shortcut for deben estar terminados (should be finished). If you remove para, the sentences make no sense:

—¿Cuándo son los deberes?
“When are the homeworks?”

—Son el jueves.
“They’re the Thursday.”

The por in the third and fourth sentences (¿Por cuánto tiempo…?, Por un par de semanitas…) is optional as well, and unlike para, you’re not really missing out on expressivity if you get rid of it. Depending on the region of spacetime where you native Spanish friends grew up, they might prefer to use ¿por cuánto tiempo?, ¿durante cuánto tiempo?, or simply ¿cuánto tiempo? They’re pretty interchangeable, so go with whatever they use.

Before we leave this aisle, let’s linger a bit by looking at time expressions that contain por: por la mañana, por la tarde, por hoy, etc. You might be tempted to think that these refer to a specific “moment in time”, and would therefore require para, but they don’t.

Estará todo listo para mañana por la mañana.
Everything will be ready by tomorrow (in the) morning.

The first mañana is the deadline, and we use para; the second mañana refers to the period of time between the night and the afternoon, therefore it’s an amount of time, and we use por.

Aisle 4: Destination (para) vs. Route (por)

This is an easy aisle. It’s where you want to be if you want to talk about geographical movement. Para is used for destinations and por for other things related to routes, locations, and means of transport.

La carretera que pasa por Cartagena sigue para Barranquilla.
The road that passes through Cartagena continues to Barranquilla.

In this aisle, para is almost perfectly interchangeable with a. These sentences mean exactly the same:

El vuelo para Buenos Aires ha sido cancelado por el mal tiempo.
El vuelo a Buenos Aires ha sido cancelado por el mal tiempo.
The flight to Buenos Aires has been canceled due to (the) bad weather.

The por in that sentence is a reason (por el mal tiempo), so it belongs in aisle 1. In this aisle, por is used to talk about the route:

Estábamos corriendo por el centro de Madrid y decidimos pasar por la Puerta de Alcalá para ir por el Parque del Retiro, en vez de por la carretera.
We were running in the center of Madrid and we decided to pass (by) the Gate of Alcalá (in order) to go (running through) the Retiro Park, instead of (running on) the road.

Just to keep you on your toes: the para in that sentence is a purpose (para ir a correr), so it also belongs in aisle 1.

Aisle 5: Opinion (para) vs Indifference (por)

This aisle houses key opinion leaders (para) and jaded complainers (por).

—Esta es la mejor playa de toda la isla. Al menos para mí.
“This is the best beach in the whole island. At least for me it is.”

—Pues para mí es de las peores.
“(Well), to me, this is one of the worst ones.”

—A ver. Es verdad que está un poco sucia, pero sigue siendo preciosa.
“Let’s see. It’s true that it’s a bit dirty, but it’s still beautiful.”

Por mí, como si la llenan de cemento y la convierten en un parking.
(If it were up to me), (I couldn’t care less if) they filled it up with cement and turned it into a parking lot.

Por {persona} (por mí, por ti, por María) is actually an abbreviation for si fuera por {persona} (if it were up to {person}). Adding como si (loosely translated as I couldn’t care less if) gives the sentence its strong hypothetical smell.

It’s no big deal if you confuse this opinion-para with the recipient-para in aisle 2 (since they’re both para), but they mean very different things:

Estos donuts son para mis hijos.
These donuts are for my children (normal recipients)

Estos donuts son lo mejor para mis hijos.
These donuts are the best (thing) for my children (opinion)

Shelf 1: The Considering (para)

Here, you can think of para as considering. It doesn’t deserve a full aisle because it doesn’t have a closely-related por alternative, but I’m including it here because it is the only remaining para usage we haven’t covered:

—¿Invitas tú?
“Are you paying (for this)?”

—Hay que ver lo tacaño que eres para lo mucho que ganas.
“(It’s shocking) how stingy you are, considering how much you make.”

Para lo poco que nos vemos, podrías ser más simpático conmigo.
“Considering how rarely we see each other, you could be nicer with me.”

Bonus: The Missing Aisle

One of the most frustrating por and para shopping experiences is spending an hour deciding which one to use, and then learning that neither was needed.

This usually happens with phrasal verbs like looking for and waiting for:

—Estoy buscando a mi hijo, Robertito.
“I’m looking for my son, Robertito.”
—Menos mal. Llevo una hora esperando a que alguien venga a buscarlo.
“(Thank goodness). (I’ve been) waiting for an hour (for someone to) come (get him).”

The best way to avoid adding English-specific por‘s and para‘s is to immerse yourself in Spanish alternatives and develop your literal-translation Spidey sense.

That’s enough shopping for one day.

Spanish takeaways

Learning a long list of por use cases and then another for para is as fun as building a house of cards on a rickety train ride.

A better approach is to focus on the five por/para aisles, to figure out which one you’re in, and then to determine which of the two alternatives makes more sense. If you’re not in any of the 5 aisles, use por.

We’ve covered a lot of ground. Let’s see how taco-ordering Mike is doing after our tour:

—¿Para quién son estos tacos al pastor?
“For whom are these ‘al pastor’ tacos?”

—¡Para mí! Esta vez no me equivoco. Tengo que usar para porque yo soy el que los recibe.
“For me! This time I’m not mistaking myself. I have to use para because I am the one who receives them.”

—Muy bien, señor. Ahora apártese para que los demás puedan pedir su comida.
“Very good, sir. Now get out of the way so that others can order their food.”

—Ah, y ese para indica el motivo. Si fuera una razón sería «porque los demás quieren pedir su comida».
“Ah, and that para indicates the purpose. If it was a reason it would be ‘because the others want to order their food'”

—Hágalo por lo que quiera, pero hágalo ya, por favor.
“Do it for whatever you want, but do it now, please.”

—Exacto: por lo que quiera es otra razón. En mi opinión, por y para no guardan secretos para usted.
“That’s it: for whatever you want is another reason. In my opinion, por and para keep no secrets from you.”

—El único secreto que desconozco es por cuánto tiempo se va a quedar aquí molestándome.
“The only secret that I’m still unaware about is for how long you are going to remain here, annoying me.”

—Entendido. Ese por indica una cantidad de tiempo. Un momento en el tiempo sería «estamos aquí para cuando quiera volver».
“Got it. That por indicates an amount of time. A moment in time would be ‘we (will be) here for (the moment when you decide that) you want to come back'”

Por mí, como si vuelve para Navidad, pero no le quiero ver más por aquí.
“(If it were up to me), (I couldn’t care less) if you came back for Christmas, but I don’t want to see you here again.”

—Vale, el primer por es una clara muestra de indiferencia, el para es otro momento en el tiempo y el segundo por describe una ruta. Voy para el pasillo de destino, que es el único que me falta.
“Ok, the first por is a clear sign of indifference, the para is another moment in time, and the second por describes a route. I’m going to the destination aisle, (since that) is the only (one) that (I’m missing).”

Good job, Mike. You can go back to eating your tacos, but leave that poor food vendor alone.

The Spanish supermarket map we have gone through is not the territory. You’ll still have to run up and down the aisles multiple times, talk to a ton of Spanish people and make a bunch of mistakes before you get it right 100% of the time.

Hopefully, reading this will help you make more useful mistakes; that is, mistakes that you can explain, and mistakes that you are less likely to make in the future.