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It appears the transitive verb provide has (at least) two prepositions:

provide (something) for (someone/something)

provide (something) to (someone/something)

For example,

The umbrellas provide shade for the guests.

He provided drugs to the prisoners.

In both of these examples, one could have swapped to and for, although the sentences as written feel more natural.

Is there a good rule to use when deciding whether to use to or for with provide?

No doubt endless opining on this question is possible. But I would very much prefer if someone could point me to some sort of authoritative source, e.g., OED, Cambridge ESL materials, Chicago Manual of Style.

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Related: Usage of the verb “provide” –  RegDwigнt Jan 25 '12 at 15:36
1  
"if someone could point me to some sort of authoritative source" they would also likely vote to close your question as "general reference" :) –  JeffSahol Jan 25 '12 at 16:01
    
The point is I haven't found any good guidance yet in the OED or Chicago Style guide. So if someone has insight, that would be great. I am as contemptuous of questions that are easily answered by opening up a standard reference as anyone else. –  Simon S Jan 25 '12 at 17:22
    
There also exists "provide (someone/something) with (something)", which is closer in meaning to "provide (something) to (someone/something)" than to "provide (something) for (someone/something)". –  ruakh Jan 25 '12 at 21:48

2 Answers 2

One shade of difference is the assumption that someone providing x to has actually delivered x to the person, not merely made sure that it was made available:

  • If you provided umbrellas for your guests, that means that there is a supply of umbrellas available for their use.

  • If you provided umbrellas to your guests, I would be more likely to assume they each have an umbrella in their hand.

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+1 because you've identified the potential difference I missed! I've put that in my answer and credited you rather than delete mine, because I think the shift in prevalence is also important here. –  FumbleFingers Jan 25 '12 at 19:52

If you provide for [someone/something in need] without specifying exactly what, it means you make available to them whatever they need - often food (provisions/provender). You can also provide for [some eventuality] without specifying what, meaning you have plans/resources to deal with that eventuality should it come to pass. Both these usages have been around a long time, and always involve for, not to.

To provide [something] to [someone] is a far more recent usage...

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Per @JeffSahol's answer, provide X to Y often implies that Y did actually receive X, whereas provide X for Y can be used even if Y doesn't avail himself of the X which is on offer. But often it's an idiomatic choice where people repeat the version they hear most. Other than that, the modern trend towards to clearly disambiguates from the first two usages given above.

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That's helpful, thanks. –  Simon S Jan 25 '12 at 17:23

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