This story illustrates when to use Por vs. Para in Spanish. This story is actually from a previous email that I sent several years ago, but I want to mention it again because it illustrates the confusion that can be caused if you do not know when to use the prepositions Por vs. Para in Spanish.
I recently met another American who will be here visiting Medellín, Colombia for a little over a month. Let’s say that his name is Harry (not his real name). Harry is here in Medellín to spend time with the woman who he refers to as his “media naranja” (“soulmate,” but literally “half of orange”). According to Harry, she refers to him as her “príncipe azul” (“knight in shining armor” or “prince charming,” but literally “blue prince”). Harry told me that he is “very fluent” in Spanish.
This story is 100% true.
Over the weekend, Harry, his “novia,” her “amiga,” and I, the four of us went to a “discoteca” (In Latin America the word “discoteca” is used for night club).
The “discoteca” is called Mangos and is very popular among “turistas” (tourists) who visit Medellín, Colombia. “Turistas” from all over the world who visit Medellín, Colombia always make sure that they visit Mangos.
Besides music, there is a lot of other entertainment such as “bailarinas” (dancers) and dancing “enanos” (dwarfs/little people) on the stage.
Now let me tell you about this “gracioso” (funny) mistake that Harry made with his Spanish . . . .
As you may already know there are two ways in Spanish to say the English word “for:” “Por” and “para.” And you can completely change the meaning of a phrase between your choice of “por” or “para.”
Well when we arrived at Mangos, Harry’s “novia” and her “amiga” walked off to buy “chicle” (chewing gum) and Harry and I walked up to the “taquilla/ventanilla” (ticket window) to purchase the “entradas” (tickets).
This is the conversation that took place between Harry and the “muchacha” (girl) working at the “taquilla/ventanilla.”
Harry: Quiero pagar por mi entrada. Y quiero pagar por una mujer. ¿Cuánto cuesta por una mujer?
(I want to pay for my ticket to enter. And I want to pay for a woman. How much does it cost for a woman?)
Muchacha: No es así acá.
(It is not like that here.)
Harry: ¿Cómo? Quiero pagar por una mujer.
(What? I want to pay for a woman.)
Muchacha: No es así acá.
(It is not like that here.)
Harry: Yo quiero pagar por una mujer.
(I want to pay for a woman.)
Muchacha: No puedes. No es así acá.
(You can’t. It is not like that here.)
Harry: ¿Cómo? Entonces es gratis por las mujeres.
(What? Then it is free for women.)
By now you can hear the frustration in Harry’s voice. And the “muchacha” is beginning to sound
very annoyed with Harry. And I am standing in the “fila/cola” (line) directly behind Harry and I am laughing hysterically. The exact same conversation goes on for another 30 seconds or more with Harry sounding almost as if he is shouting and with the “muchacha” beginning to sound increasingly “enojada” (angry).
Harry: Quiero pagar por una mujer!
(I want to pay for a woman!)
Muchacha: Ya le dije que no es así acá.
(I already told you that it is not like that here!)
Harry: ¡Entonces es gratis o que!
(¡Then it is free or what!)
At this point I am almost on the floor laughing uncontrollably. And that’s when the “muchacha”
calls “la seguridad” for the “discoteca” and a big burly bouncer walks over. I could not
hear everything she was saying because I was too busy laughing but I did hear her say to the
bouncer something about a “gringo loco” (crazy American) while pointing to Harry.
Now I realized that things were getting out of hand and I needed to step in and explain to the “muchacha” what Harry was trying to say.
I told her: Él no quiere pagar POR una mujer. Quiere pagar PARA una mujer.
(He doesn’t want to pay for a woman. He wants to pay for a woman.)
When To Use Por vs. Para In Spanish
Let me explain the difference between the two. Although both sentences translate as “he wants to pay for a woman” they have very different meanings.
“Para” which can be translated as the English word “for” can be used to express the recipient of an action. “Para” can be used to tell both where and whom something is going. The recipient always follows “para”:
Quiero pagar (la entrada) para una mujer.
I want to pay for a woman (to enter).
“Por” which also means the English word “for” can be used when you want to express an exchange of money or something else “for” something of equal value.
So “quiero pagar por una mujer” means “I want to exchange money in order to receive a woman.” It is a lot like saying “I want to buy a woman.” Desafortunadamente (unfortunately) many Americans and other “extranjeros” (foreigners) come to Colombia just to take advantage of the “Colombianas.”
They are incredibly beautiful women, especially “las paisas” (women of Medellín). But because of the “pobreza” (poverty) in Colombia many of them are “prostitutas.”
So when Harry with his Gringo accent said “quiero pagar por una mujer” the “muchacha” assumed that Harry wanted to buy a “prostituta.”
So the lesson that I hope you learned here is that “por” and “para” are grammatically interchangeable many times. You can use either one and end up saying a sentence that is grammatically correct. But you can completely change the meaning of a phrase by your choice of “por” or “para.” And the Spanish listener will not be able to read your mind and will assume that you actually meant what you said.
So you have to be careful about using the one that expresses what you really want to say otherwise, at best, you may be misunderstood. And at worst, you may offend or insult a Spanish speaker.