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")

  • 2
    Ah yes, the "para" vs "por" issue...
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Oct 19, 2010 at 8:42
  • 3
    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
    Commented Oct 21, 2010 at 7:54
  • 1
    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
    Commented Oct 21, 2010 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"). Commented Oct 21, 2010 at 15:23

5 Answers 5


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.

  • 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. Commented Oct 19, 2010 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? Commented Oct 20, 2010 at 16:13
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    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
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 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.

  • 1
    Thanks for pointing out where the confusion is coming from! She says that's exactly it. Commented Oct 19, 2010 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.


There's also the situation where either is acceptable.

I read a story to the children.

I read a story for the children.


Deeper, more profound answers require one to appeal to Linguistics. So I Googled "semantics of english prepositions" which revealed many references such as the following:

Applying Cognitive Linguistics to Learning the Semantics of English to, for and at: An Experimental Investigation by Andrea Tyler, Charles Mueller, Vu Ho.

At 26 pages, it is too long to reproduce here, but the following quote from p 2 of 26 (Introduction) should already convince you of and to evidence its helpfulness.

  Language teachers and researchers have long recognized that the acquisition of prepositions poses major challenges for second language learners (e.g., Celce- Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1999). One reason for this is that the semantics of prepositions are notoriously difficult to characterize. For instance, on first inspection, the distinction between prepositions such as over and above is quite unclear. On one hand, the sentence:
The picture is over the mantle,   is a near paraphrase of:   The picture is above the mantle.
On the other hand, the sentence:
Mary hung her jacket over the back of the chair
is interpreted as meaning something quite different than:
Mary hung her jacket above the back of the chair.
Additionally, prepositions tend to develop a complex set of extended meanings, for instance, over has developed at least 16 meanings, many of which do not appear to be systematically related. Although linguists have long been aware that prepositions develop complex polysemy networks, the meaning networks surrounding spatial markers (and the systematic processes of meaning extension from which they result) have only become the foci of linguistic inquiry in the last 20 years. Even the best descriptive grammars and dictionaries present the multiple meanings of spatial language as largely arbitrary. Traditional accounts have represented the semantics of English prepositions as arbitrary (Bloomfield, 1933; Frank, 1972; Chomsky, 1995). Consequently, pedagogical treatments have often suggested memorization as the best strategy. Studies show that accurate use of spatial language is one of the last elements learned and many highly proficient L2 speakers never attain native speaker-like use (e.g., Lam, 2009). Indeed, Lam found that L2 Spanish learners made virtually no gains in their mastery of the prepositions por and para over the course of four years of college Spanish.
   Cognitive Linguistics (CL) offers an alternative perspective, suggesting that the many distinct meanings associated with a particular preposition are related in systematic, principled ways (e.g., Brugman, 1988; Dewell, 1994; Dirven, 1993; Lakoff, 1987; Linder, 1982; Hawkins, 1988; Herskovits, 1986, 1988; Tyler and Evans, 2001a, 2003; Vandeloise, 1991, 1994)

Ensure to consult and try the many References on pp 22-26, which includes (on page 25) the following which I plan to read myself:

Tyler, A. & Evans, V. 2003. The Semantics of English Prepositions: Spatial Scenes, Embodied Meaning and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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