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A Brazilian friend speaks English very well, but has a very unique habit: it seems often that she needs to use "for" but she instead uses "to", and vice-versa.

For instance:

The present is to Thomas. (should be "for")

Say hello for your wife. (should be "to")

I have tried looking in the dictionary to specifically determine which definitions she's confusing, and it seems that she's mixing up using "to" as a consequence and "for" to indicate a purpose.

How can I help her find a way of remembering to use them correctly?

Edit: We recently ran into a better example:

You started working on a fix to that problem. (should be "for")

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Ah yes, the "para" vs "por" issue... – RegDwigнt Oct 19 '10 at 8:42
I wonder whether the edited example (fix for) is simply idiomatic -- compare solution to, which has similar semantics but a different preposition. If so, it's probably impossible to find a rule of thumb that would make it clear for a non-native speaker. Back to memorization. :-) – Mike Pope Oct 21 '10 at 7:54
PS I have beat my head against por/para in Spanish, not to mention the various idiomatic uses of prepositions in German, so I am completely sympathetic to your friend's difficulties in mastering these in English and to your difficulties in finding mnemonics for them. – Mike Pope Oct 21 '10 at 7:56
@Mike Pope Great comments, thanks for pointing that out. The silly thing is that "solution for" would also work. I think what might actually work best is trying "towards" for "to", or "for the [...] of" for "for" (where an appropriate noun fits; e.g. "for the good of" or "for the resolution of"). – Paul Lammertsma Oct 21 '10 at 15:23

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

One possibility, understanding that prepositions have very slippery and often idiosyncratic meanings ... have her think of to as indicating a destination:

I sent the present to him.

I gave the present to her.

Whereas for can indicate or "for the good of":

I did it for her.

The present is for him.

Do you think this might help? Note that we're likely to find many cases where these simplistic definitions don't work, alas.

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I've given it some thought before, and am inclined to agree. When I wrote the examples in the OP, I already realized that they were too simple; I've caught myself trying to find some direction or intent for when she slips up, but it's usually a fairly complex sentence. I'll keep track and post an update when I have a better example. – Paul Lammertsma Oct 19 '10 at 21:58
I've updated the OP with a better example. The substitution rule ("towards" or "for the good of") helps a little, but neither is obviously correct. How could you substitute "for" in that example to demonstrate that it's the right one? – Paul Lammertsma Oct 20 '10 at 16:13
In that example we could think of the problem more generally, as a situation. The fix is "for the benefit of" the situation, not something that moves us towards the situation. – Waggers Jul 5 '11 at 8:24

The problem is that both "for" and "to" translate to Portuguese in these cases as para.:

"The present is for Thomas." --> O presente é para o Thomas.

"Say hello to your wife." --> "Diga oi para a sua esposa."

As a native Portuguese speaker (I'm Brazilian too), I'd say that there's no simple rule of thumb to always avoid this confusion. You can explain to her what Mike Pope said in his answer; that should help. But it's only by listening and repeating the appropriate usage that we will naturally learn to use these prepositions correctly.

This is my advice for her... I mean, my advice to her.

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Thanks for pointing out where the confusion is coming from! She says that's exactly it. – Paul Lammertsma Oct 19 '10 at 21:56

I'm a spanish speaker and I sometimes confuse them too, because we use the word "para" with both meanings.

In this example "Say hello to your wife" and in all the sentences where you have "dative case" you should use "to" I think.

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There's also the situation where either is acceptable.

I read a story to the children.

I read a story for the children.

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