What’s the difference between to and for?

What’s the difference between to and for?

by Laura Jones

Updated January 25, 2023

Do you know the difference between “to” and “for”? These two tiny prepositions are incredibly useful for a variety of situations in English. In this article, we’ll teach you when to use “to” and “for” correctly. We’ll review some distinct  ways to use “to” and “for”, and then we’ll go over some examples  that often confuse learners of English. So, without further ado, here’s the difference between “for” and “to” in English. 

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When to use “to”

This list below is not exhaustive. in fact, if we mentioned all  the different ways you can use “to”, we’d need to turn this article  into a book. But these five examples should be a good primer. 

1. Sending greetings or expressing wishes

Say hi to Andy from me. 
Happy birthday to you! 

2. Destination or movement

We’re going to New York today. 
This bus is going to the depot. 

3. Comparatives

We prefer the mountains to the beach. 

4. Time and numbers

It’s five to seven. 
A house in this area costs $200,000 to $250,000 on average. 

5. After some nouns, verbs and adjectives

Do you know the answer to the question?
I’m looking forward to seeing you. 
Please be kind to the children. 

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When to use “for”

Here are three ways we use “for”. Again, there are more ways to use this preposition, but these are the most important ones to remember. 

1. Duration and schedules

I have lived here for ten years. 
I made you an appointment for Monday. 

2. Benefits

Yoga is good for the mind and the body.

3. Support and agreement

I am for free university education in most cases.  
Now we’re going to look at “to” and “for” together and see how they’re used in expressions that learners often find confusing. 

Reason and purpose

We can use both “to” and “for” to talk about the reason or motive for doing something. The difference lies in the grammar. Take a look at the sentences below. 

  • She’s in Paris for a meeting with her boss. 
  • She’s in Paris to meet her boss. 

The structure is for + noun and to + verb. Here’s another example: 

  • I’m here for you
  • I’m here to help you.

“For” can be used with a gerund to express the purpose of an object. 

  • I use that bowl for serving salads. 
  • I use that bowl to serve salads. 

Giving and receiving

Many learners get confused about whether to use “to” vs. “for” when they talk about giving and buying gifts for people. The first thing is to forget what we just said about reason and purpose – in this case, “to” is used with a noun. Use “to” when you talk about giving someone something directly. 

  • I gave those tickets to my mum as a birthday present. 

This is when the indirect object, “my mum” comes after the direct object, “those tickets”. If you change the order of the objects, you don’t need “to”. 

  • I gave my mum those tickets as a birthday present. 

Use “for” to talk about the reason for buying a gift. You can also use “for” with the verb “to buy” to talk about the recipient of a gift. 

  • I gave those tickets to my mum for her birthday
  • She bought this for her dad

Important to vs. important for

Another common error that students make is when using the structures “important to” and “important for”. Both can be correct, but the meaning of the two phrases is different. Take a look at these examples. 

  • Meeting my long-lost relatives was really important to me. 
  • Meeting the CEO is really important for me. 

If something is important to you, it is personally important and holds some significance to you personally. If something is important for you, it has a benefit for you. Here is another example: 
Spending time with my grandparents is really important to me, but focusing on work is important for my career.

When to use to and for

Hopefully, we’ve managed to clear up some doubts about using “to” and “for” in English. Try to remember the grammatical differences when talking about your reason for doing something – I’m learning English for work vs. I’m learning English to use at work. You also need to remember the different ways of talking about giving and receiving and whether something is important to you or for you. (Saying your childhood teddy bear is important for you might get you some funny looks – what does it do for you?!) Remembering all of this will be good for your English!

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves traveling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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