I was just watching one of my favorite Spanish-language movies, Maria Full of Grace, which is fantastic for learning Spanish, by the way (because you can turn on English or Spanish subtitles and the script is available online), and I noticed they would use the expression “para qué” about as often as “por qué”. I knew they were nearly the same, and the context seemed to indicate so, but I thought “well, there has to be a difference, otherwise why would they bother using one instead of the other?” So I did a bit of research and here’s what I found out.
A quick side note: if you’re interested in teaching yourself Spanish…
I have a short post and video (that are free to read and view of course, won’t cost you more than a few minutes of your time) on how to do precisely that with the system that I put together which allowed me to become fluent in Spanish in just 6 months after years of trial-and-error by watching Spanish-language TV shows (like telenovelas, hence the name of the system) and movies, reading Spanish books and comics, and listening to Spanish music. If this sounds interesting to you, check it out by clicking the link below (the following link should open in a new tab or window for you when you click it so I’m not asking you to leave this article here):
I also include some quick and valuable tips for learning Spanish as well as a couple of the most useful free Spanish-learning websites that I recommend.
They can both mean “why”, as in when translated into English they will both tend to be translated into that specific word, however…a good translator won’t do that, because “para qué” doesn’t really exactly mean “why”, or just “why”, at least. What it more accurately translates to is “for what?”, that is you’re asking what the purpose of doing something is, you’re asking what the objective is, what the person intends to accomplish by doing it, in other words you’re asking for what purpose they’re doing it, hence the translation for it really being “for what?”, or perhaps “what for?”. See how that does sort of fall under the definition of “why”, but a better, more precise way of putting it would be “for what”? It’s sort of like translating “de qué parte?”, which means “from what part”, as “where”–yes, you could, it’s not incorrect, but there’s a more accurate translation.
“Por qué”, on the other hand, is typically used when you simply want to know what someone’s motivation is or what the cause is of something happening. Maybe they didn’t have an objective, maybe they just did it because they were angry or happy or sad or whatever, or maybe there was an objective, in which case you can still use “por qué” though perhaps “para qué” may have been a better choice if you wanted to make it clear that you wanted to know what their objective was, not just their motivation for doing it (sometimes those are the same thing, sometimes not).
I like translating things literally because it helps you understand where the actual meaning came from. Here, it really helps: “para” means “for” in the sense of “in order to”, whereas “por” is more frequently used to mean “by” or “because of”, and of course “qué” means “what”, so let’s take that and look at these two phrases and see if this makes sense. “Por qué” literally means “because of what”, as in “what caused this to occur?”, whereas “para qué” literally means “in order to what?”, as in “you’re doing this in order to…what?”. Does this make sense now? Hopefully this also helps you to remember when to use “por” and when to use “para”, as well, since I know a lot of people have trouble with that.
A Quick Note Before We End…
I’ve got two posts that I’ve put up that I’m recommending everyone interested in learning Spanish go read if they haven’t already (if you have, ignore this, sorry): How to avoid wasting months learning Spanish the wrong way (basically this is my “how to get started right in learning Spanish” post for complete beginners) and The Telenovela Method where I cover how to use popular media like movies, music, and books to learn Spanish. Additionally you can check out the front page for a more complete list of my best and most popular posts.