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Portuguese Prepositions “Para” vs. “A”: Know When to Use Either

Language learners often struggle to discern between the prepositions a and para, especially when both are used as prepositions of movement.

That’s hardly surprising. When in English we use to, we can either use a or para to nuance different “types” of movement.

So, what’s the difference between the Portuguese prepositions a and para?

The preposition a suggests a round-trip movement with a relatively short stay at the destination, whereas para often implies a one-way motion and, consequently, a longer stay at the place of arrival.

Here’s a simple example:

(1) Eu vou a Portugal de férias. Fico lá duas semanas.
I am going to Portugal for the holidays. I’ll stay there for two weeks.

(2) Eu vou para Portugal. Arranjei lá um emprego.
I am going to Portugal. I got a job there.

As you can see above, the first sentence suggests a relatively short stay compared to the second. Also, the first sentence lends itself well to the notion of a 2-way movement, as opposed to the unidirectional motion suggested by the last one.  

Now, what constitutes a short or long stay is, of course, relative to the context. Look at this second example:

(1) Eu vou ao restaurante. Estou farto de comer em casa.
I am going to the restaurant. I am tired of eating at home.

(2) Eu vou para o restaurante. Hoje,  faço o turno das 9h às 15h.
I am going to the restaurant. Today,  I am doing the 9 a.m. – 3 a.m. shift.

Now we have a different time frame. Still, within this context, you can discern between the shorter stay of the guest in sentence 1 and the longer stay of the cook in sentence 2. 

This time-frame nuancing is, I believe, what most confuses language learners when it comes to choosing between a and para. Anyway, I hope that it became clearer for you.  

Now, these two prepositions are also used beyond denoting movement. In what follows, we’ll look at each preposition in greater detail. Stay tuned.

Tips! Learn more about other Portuguese prepositions: Portuguese Prepositions and Their Contractions: An In-Depth Usage Rundown.

Preposition “a”

The preposition a is a preposition of movement as we’ve seen above. Additionally, a is also used as a preposition of time as well as place

Let’s start by taking a look at its contractions. 

Contractions

This preposition merges with definite articles and a few demonstratives starting with the letter “a”. 

a + definite articles

definite articles oaosas
contracted forms ao
(a + o)
à 
(a + a)
aos 
(a + os)
às 
(a + as)

a + demonstratives

Besides definite articles, a combines with those demonstratives that start with the letter “a”:

that over thereaquiloaquele/saquela/s
contracted formsàquilo
(a + aquilo)
àquele/s
(a + aquele/s)
àquela/s
(a + aquela/s)

Reading tips! Learn more about Portuguese demonstratives: Portuguese Demonstrative Pronouns and Determiners.

Usage

Preposition of movement

As you already know from the introduction, a is used as a preposition of movement in association with shorter time-periods at the destination: 

Vou à padaria comprar pão. 
I’m going to the bakery to buy some bread.

Ela foi ao centro para se encontrar com amigos. 
She went to the city center to see some friends.

Preposition of time

We also use a to say the hours:

Os bancos abrem às 9h e  fecham às 15h. 
Banks open at 9 a.m. and close at 3 p.m.

Acabamos a reunião ao meio-dia.
We finished the meeting at midday.

Also, we use a to say the parts of the day:

Logo à tarde vou correr. 
I’ll go for a run later in the afternoon.

Hoje à noite temos visitas.
We have guests this evening.

! However, we use de to say,in the morning” – de manhã. 

What’s more, we use a to talk about recurring events in association with the days of the week:

A Sara tem aulas de Português às quartas-feiras. 
Sara has Portuguese classes on Wednesday.

! Note that we use em, not a, to refer to one-off events: “A Sara tem uma aula de Português na quarta-feira”(Sara has a Portuguese class on Wednesday).

Finally, we use a to denote the end of a time period (and de to indicate its beginning):

Vou estar de férias de 10 junho a 5 de julho.
I will be on holiday from the 10th of June until the 5th of July.

Place

We use a to suggest proximity to someone or something, normally in association with the verb estar:

Olha quem está ali à janela!
Look who’s there at the window!

Preposition “para”

Like the preposition a, we use para to denote movement. Besides, we use para to indicate purpose and to refer to the time ahead.

This preposition doesn’t merge with any articles or other determiners.

Usage

Preposition of movement

We use para to express direction and destination: 

Vira-te para o outro lado, por favor. 
Turn to the other side, please.

Este voo vai para Amsterdão. 
This flight is to Amsterdam.

Compared to a, para implies a longer stay at the destination:

Vou viver para Angola.
I am moving to Angola.

Expressing purpose

We use para to denote intention and purpose:

Comprei estas laranjas para ti. 
I bought these oranges for you.

Estou à espera do Carlos para irmos para a praia. 
I am waiting for Carlos to go to the beach.

! In the context above, para is actually not a preposition but a subordinating conjunction, specifically a final conjunction. Learn more about Portuguese conjunctions or linking words: Portuguese Conjunctions: A Practical Guide Anchored to English.

Time

We use para to indicate the time ahead:

Até para a semana.
I will see you next week.

Marquei o almoço para as 13h.
I booked lunch at 1 p.m.

É um quarto para as 7h (da manhã).
It’s a quarter to 7 a.m.

Recipient

Para is used to denote the recipient:

Tenho um presente para ti!
I have a present for you!

Aquela caixa ali é para a Alice.
That box over there is for Alice.

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