Por and para: disentangling the mess of Spanish prepositions

The vast majority of students of Spanish as a foreign language I’ve had the chance to meet has always asked one question. What’s the difference between POR and PARA?

Apart from asking them whether they have checked grammar books—or because I’m an asshole but because I want to know what they know already—I usually tell them that English has got one sentence that works wonders!

I bought this for you

FOR can be expanded to avoid different interpretations, as clearly the sentence can mean:

1. I bought this for you (You’ll receive it)

2. I bought this on your behalf.

3. I bought this because of you. (not quite the first idea you’d get when using FOR, but it’s still grammatically correct)

So, if you can use FOR and BECAUSE OF interchangeably, then the Spanish equivalent is POR. Note that in this case, you’re highlighting a reason; the motivation for your buying whatever you at have purchased. Further examples in Spanish are:

Lo hizo por gusto (He/She/It did it because he/she/it wanted to do it) .

Le sucedió por flojo (That happened to him/her because of his/her laziness).

Then, if you can replace FOR with ON SB’S BEHALF, then the Spanish equivalent is EN VEZ DE (QUE).

Finally, if you want to express who the receiver of something is, then you must use PARA. This Spanish preposition is used to convey other meanings; as a general rule, you must append it to infinitives when expressing objectives (this means that there’s no option to express TO GO/FOR GOING at prepositional level). Please remember that infinitives in Spanish end in ~AR, ~ER or ~IR and that if you were to say CANTANDO (singing), that means that someone is singing now.

There is yet another use of PARA. We use this preposition when we want to express the idea of somebody is good at + something/doing something  and when somebody is prone to + something/doing something. Regretfully, context is the key to disambiguating these sentences:

Pedro es bueno para comer sandía –> Pedro is prone to eating watermelon.

Pedro es bueno para aprender idiomas –> Pedro is good at language learning.


<<Me gusta el pan>>,but <<Me llamo Pedro>>…so, what is going on?

The 4 main verbal patterns of the Spanish language

Spanish features 4 main patters when it comes to verbal conjugation. What we deal with on this post is the nature of the subject, object—if any—and finally, particles.

  1. Transitive verbs

The easiest category! Verbs that follow the S + V + O pattern and conjugate according to the subject. Examples are <<Yo compro pan>> and <<Ella lee un libro>>. Note the colours to highlight the Subject-Verb agreement at grammatical level.


Whenever a transitive verbs allows a noun referring to a human to be its object, it is mandatory in educated Spanish to add a preposition. This is referred to as a Accusative-to-Dative variation and, oftentimes, it’s extrapolated to animals in colloquial Spanish. Examples are VER, ABRAZAR, MIRAR


Ver la televisión –> Ver a Manuel


Abrazar un cojín –> Abrazar a Manuel


Mirar la televisión –> Mirar a Manuel


You can passivize most transitives by adding the <<se>> particle and conjugating the verb in the 3rd person singular. The meaning is equivalent to English ‘It is + adjective” as in “It is visible from here”

  1. Intransitive verbs

The second easiest category! Verbs that follow the S + V pattern and conjugate according to the subject. These verbs cannot be passivized without implying a change in meaning (passive of nuisance) which operates only to show that an action is detrimental to the speaker.  Usually, in this category we find verbs of movement, such as <<ir, venir, viajar, caminar>> and verbs that inform of an action performed at a place; for instance, <<trabajar, descansar>>

  1. Experiential verbs

Probably the trickiest category!  This comprises verbs whose actions are performed and experienced by the subject. The construction being similar to “”It pleases me..” however, Spanish does not offer many options to circumvent the construction!

The superstar within this category is <<Gustar>>  (to like) and the  trick is to use the S + V + O pattern while conjugating the verb with regards to the object. Then, how on earth are saying who’s performing the action? That is easy! We just grab a special pronoun called oblique pronoun, which is a reminiscence of Latin. Let’s look at the table below in which you’ll find pronouns and their oblique corresponding counterparts. (N=Normal; suitable for everyday conversation/ F=Formal; suitable for introductions and formal situations)

Pronoun English counterpart Oblique Level of formality
Yo I me N
You (singular) te N
Usted You (singular) le F
Él He le N
Ella She le N
Nosotros We nos N
Nosotras We nos N
Vosotros You os N
Vosotras You os N
Ellos They les N
Ellas They les N
Ustedes You (plural) les N

Therefore, if I were to say “I like chocolates”, then I’d say <<Me gusta el chocolate>>.

However, when the object is a human, it is mandatory to employ a pronoun as complement and front it. Let’s start by discussing non-human objects! So, if I were to say “She likes me”;  we need to parse out sentence as follows:


if then I were to say “We like her”, then would say:


Of course, you can forget about the fronting, but some native speakers prefer that option. That being said, YO LE GUSTO or LE GUSTO YO are both acceptable



  1. Reflexive verbs

This category will be discussed in detail later; however, one of the first verbs you learn belongs to this category: <<llamarse>>


Aspect in Japanese is one of the most difficult topics of grammar enquiry. This problem lies in the fact most investigation and description has been carried out considering European languages as the base for any survey, which of course is not the best approach for languages that share no resemblance at all.

In Japanese, Aspect can be understood as operating in three dimensions, as those exposed by Comrie (1976), namely Continuative, Perfect and Perfective. The fundamental issue is that Japanese relies on the same morphological instantiation to map different functions thus causing a problem when direct interpretation of overt forms is carried out. Let’s have a look at the following examples:

東京に行っている。in this example, the interpretation is Perfective, as the meaning is “Someone is gone to Tokyo”  and by no chance can it be understood as “Someone is going to Tokyo”.  Even though this seems confusing, the lesson is that we have to consider how the verb is used before reaching to any generalizing conclusions.

Likewise, with  東京に住んでいる。there is a similar phenomena in that the mapping to English is not a continuative sentence, but “Someone lives in Tokyo/Someone is living in Tokyo”  with both distinctions being not totally different. This verb is normally taught as one of the verbs that always requires teiru appended to operate normally, so sentences like 東京に住む。considering the tense as present, are non-grammatical from a prescriptive perspective.

Conversely, with verbs like the one in the last example 本を読んでいる。, a Continuative approach is possible because the verb allows for it. In this case, the meaning is understood as “Someone is reading a book”

Considering the aforementioned affordances based on use rather than morphological rules, verbs can be categorized into the following categories:

STATIVE, CONTINUATIVE and MOMENTANEOUS (embracing Perfect and Perfective)

There are many classifications, with the most relevant being that by Haruhiko Kindaichi in the 50s as he was one of the first grammarians to enquire on this topic.

During our next post, we will discuss each category in detail.


Durante mucho tiempo, las gramáticas de caso han sido consideradas difíciles de entender y de implementar. Sin embargo, al entender el caso como una función o rol que cumple un determinado elemento dentro de una proposición, resulta más fácil entender cuáles son los puntos coincidentes y divergentes entre la lengua materna y la lengua meta.

A continuación, les presentamos una tabla con los casos gramaticales más comunes. No hermos incluído casos específicos como el inesivo, o el traslativo, los cuales están presentes en la lengua finlandesa. Más adelante ahondaremos más en este tema cuando tratemos en detalle el caso ergativo.



Caso acusativo

Marca la relación gramatical verbo/objeto en la oración.

Caso dativo

Marca la relación de beneficiario de una acción. El NP que tiene este marcador actúa como el receptor de la acción expresada por el verbo.

Caso genitivo

Marca los NP que son dependientes de un sustantivo dentro de la oración.

Caso ergativo

Caso gramatical en el que el objeto de una oración transitiva recibe el mismo marcador de caso que el sujeto de una oración intransitiva.

Caso comitativo

Marca el NP que cumple el rol de acompañante de otro NP o sustantivo.

Caso instrumental

Marca la relación medio de acción/verbo en la oración.

Caso abesivo

Indica que el sustantivo que lo contiene no está presente dentro de las características expresadas por el verbo.

Caso locativo

Marca la relación lugar de acción/verbo en la oración.

Caso nominativo

Marca la relación sujeto/verbo o corresponde al sustantivo aislado.

Caso vocativo

Marca el sustantivo al cual se dirige el hablante.

Caso ablativo

Indica que un NP realiza actividad de movimiento desde un punto A a otro punto B.

How Semantics and Syntax are linked. What really happens inside of your mind: a brief introduction

Normally, when people hear the word grammar, they think of a set of rules that are kind of controlling the way we are supposed to say or express our ideas, so notions such as subject, object, tense, verb and many others start popping out inside of our minds.

However, it would be far more correct to say that our mind has something which is present since we a born, that allows us to give shape to those rules, and not the other way around. For instance, what we know as grammar is just and instantiation of the aforementioned pre-loaded set of rules + the sentences we listen to and hear when we are children. Therefore, would not those pre-loaded rules set some parameters? The answer is that more than setting rules, they represent the available possibilities and the sentences we listen to or hear represent the real instantiations using such chances. This would explain the differences in terms  of verb, subject and object position between languages and the position of the nuclear component of a structure, for example.

Now, if we get back to the main topic of our discussion, we are going to focus on the way we select the components of the sentences we unconsciously consider as grammatical.

Let´s consider:

a) The cat eats cookies in the kitchen.

b) **Eats cookies in the kitchen.

Sentence a) is grammatical and natural, but sentence b) is weird. Using these simple examples, we show the importance of subject in English. Subjects are mandatory in English and this is a grammar rule, but not because grammarians have decided on it. This happens due to the fact English language requires a subject. There are , of course, situations in which you can drop subjects in English, such as in “Eat your cookies”, but only considering the sentence is an imperative one.

Up to this point we have just discussed Syntax, but not Semantics.

In the case of Semantics, we can consider some restrictions that are applied to the components we use to give shape to a sentence. Therefore, if we consider:

a) The boy drinks water.

b) The cat drinks water.

c) **The desk drinks water.

Sentences a) and b) are grammatical, but sentence c) is not. What might be the reason? Yes, it is linked to the fact desks cannot drink water nor any other fluid, but is this issue classifiable?

Some languages, such as Japanese, have a volitional and non-volitional verbal category, which constrains subject selection for some verbs. Nonetheless, semantics is linked to Syntax in a way that is not as obvious as it has been exposed here.

If we say:

What are you doing?

The possible answers are:

a) Eating chocolate.

b) I am eating chocolate.

Both answers are possible because the question is asking for that information, which seems obvious, but the way we know what we are being asked is a complex process. This process is a targeting procedure that let us know what we can possible answer and this is based on Semantics and semantic procedures: what is a noun and represents a noun which is the object of the verb doing so answer a) is possible; in the other hand what can represent a more complex action so I am eating chocolate  seems also possible. Up to this point, we have uncovered the reasoning, but we have not found a reason yet. The reason why both a noun or a full answer containing a verb is possible is due to the fact that there is a more profound relationship between the sentences that can contain what and what as a word itself.

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Japanese language is regarded as difficult by many people; however, if we are given the proper rules and parameters  governing this language, we can achieve a high proficiency level, which is not a  bad idea, is it?

In Japanese, according to many grammarians, there is a classification called Volitional criteria.  This criterion classifies verbs into Volitional and Non-volitional based on the possibility of energy input by the subject in order to start the action. The importance of these classifications is that it constraints subject selection and verbal inflection, among many other things. However, there are many other such as the one based on Transitivity and Intransitivity. In Japanese there are transitive and intransitive verbal pairs, some people think that if the transitive verb is volitional, then the intransitive counterpart is non-volitional. However, this is not the case and in some situation this reasoning makes sense.  For  intransitive verbs, the reason of this non-volition seems to be linked to the fact actions “happens by itself” and with no external intervention. Other classifications include  those referring to the quality of the action expressed by the verb rather than by its syntactic nature. Among those, we have  stative verbs, such as ある and いる, but again, exceptions play an important role and いる can be both volitional and non-volitional.

Volitional Verbs 意志動詞

Are those verbs that require a human subject or a subject that can add energy to the action; in other words, a subject that can control the onset, development and outcome of  the action. Examples are: to eat, to drink, to go, to read, etc.


In Japanese these verbs can take any volitional ending or conjugation, such as 命令形 and  たい形, among others.

Table showing the possible conjugation for both volitional and non-volitional verbs:

























































This table was taken from: http://web.ydu.edu.tw/~uchiyama/1h93fy/ishi.html all rights reserved to those who have created it.


Are those verbs that, despite the fact of having a human subject, are outside of the control of such subject. The outcome of the action is not controlled by the subject in any case, so its onset, development and outcome are out of the subject´s control. Examples are: to die, to become,  verbs that are linked to weather conditions,  verbs that are related to psychological sensations, verbs that express sudden changes,  verbs that indicate capabilities, and the potential form.


This category is complex. First, we need to consider that from a Japanese perspective, all sentences that refer to capabilities are regarded as non-volitional. If you are capable of doing something, this means such capability is innate and there is nothing you can do to modify it (we will discuss later how we can express changes in capabilities)

Of course, since language is alive, there are exceptions, but now we are discussing the main issues exposed by traditional grammars.

Since these verbs express something out the subject´s control, normally they behave as a unit requiring only 1 argument, i.e. the subject argument  (intransitive)

The following analysis is not accurate in terms of syntax, but it is useful if we just consider the topic herein:

ドアが開いた。 [noun: door] [subject particle] [verb: open intransitive ] –> The action happens by itself, so there is no human intervention.

東京に行けた。 [noun: Tokyo] [destination particle] [verb: potential go] –> Verb 行く is volitional, but since it has been conjugated into potential form, it turned into a non-volitional verb because it is referring to a capability.

茶碗が壊れた。 [noun: tea pot] [subject particle] [verb: brake intransitive] –> The action happens by itself, so there is no human intervention.

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