It can be tricky to know when you should use “to” vs. “for” in conversation and writing, but there are some simple rules that can help you remember which one is correct. Both these words are prepositions, but they have some subtle and important differences. This “to” vs. “for” explanation can help, and understanding how to use each word is a good starting point.
You can use “to” in a variety of ways, and understanding these will help you know if it’s the correct word for your situation.
One of the most common ways you can use the word “to” is to indicate a transfer of something. “To” tells the reader or listener where something or someone is going, as you can see in these examples:
- Give your papers to the secretary.
- She needed to get a permission slip, so she went to the office.
- Sally gave a bone to the dog and a toy mouse to the cat.
- I drove directly from work to the conference.
- I made a phone call to the police.
Another very common way to use “to” is in showing direction. This is similar to a transfer, but the object or person doesn’t have to have a clearly defined destination. The following examples show how to use it this way:
- He got on his horse and rode off to the west.
- The kids rode their bikes to the park.
- The child ran to the window when his father returned home.
- The chickens walked to the corner of their coop.
- They drove to the supermarket.
When you give a range of something, you use “to” to indicate the limits. You can do this in a variety of situations, such as these examples:
- This car can hold up to seven passengers.
- From 9:00 to 11:00, we’ll have a lecture on monarch butterflies.
- Each married couple had one to three children.
- For a big Thanksgiving dinner, buy a turkey that’s 18 to 23 pounds.
- The wedding reception included 80 to 100 guests.
When you conjugate a verb in English, the infinitive form often includes the word “to.” You’ll use the infinitive when the verb is the subject of the sentence or in other situations, such as after verbs that require a direct object. You can see this in action in these examples:
- To end a phone call, press the red button.
- This knife is used to cut vegetables.
- We decided to order a salad to split.
- Let’s ask our parents to drive us there.
- She likes to wear red whenever she can.
Just like “to,” “for” is a preposition. However, you use it in different ways. These are a few of the most common reasons to use “for.”
It’s very common to use “for” to explain who or what benefits from an action. These examples show how you can do this:
- I opened the door for the mailman.
- We bought a present for my best friend.
- I gave her a ribbon for her hair.
- What can I do for you?
- I cleaned out the car for my mom.
“For” can connect an action to its purpose. This is important, as you can see in these example sentences:
- His mom took him to the doctor for his terrible cough.
- We use the spatula for flipping pancakes.
- That artist is famous for his use of color.
- I got a traffic ticket for speeding in a school zone.
- I need these tools for plumbing.
In some cases, you can also use the word “for” to mean “instead of” or “in place of.” Here’s how that works:
- She is a substitute teacher for Mrs. Smith.
- You can also use apple cider vinegar for lemon juice in that recipe.
- May I unload those groceries from the car for you?
- In the woods, we used birch bark for paper when we made our maps.
- Early settlers used leather straps for door hinges.
“For” can also mean a time, a distance, or even an occasion. This can be a little trickier, but it makes sense when you see some examples:
- What are you giving Jessica for her birthday?
- We drove for miles without finding an ice cream store.
- Those kids watched television for three hours yesterday, so they can’t watch any today.
- What are you doing for winter break?
- What should we serve for dinner?
In most cases, whether you use “to” or “for” will change the meaning of the sentence you are saying or writing, especially when you are talking about doing something to or for someone. Consider these examples:
- I made a phone call to my dad.
I made a phone call for my dad.
- What can I do to you?
What can I do for you?
In the first pair of sentences, the first example means that you are calling your dad. You are going to have a conversation with him. The second sentence means that you are calling someone else on behalf of your dad.
There aren’t any hard-and-fast “to me” vs. “for me” rules, but there are some important questions you can ask yourself to decide which is right for your situation.
- Are you talking about something that is changing location or direction? If you are, “to” is often the right choice. (e.g., "Joanne went to me for advice.")
- Does someone or something benefit? If so, you may want to use “for.” (e.g., "George is mowing the lawn for me.")
- Is someone giving something to another person? In this case, use “to.” (e.g., "Give that pencil to me, please."
- Is there a limit on when or where something is happening? If so, try “to.” (e.g., "Keep counting until you get to me.")
Test your “to” vs. “for” knowledge with this fun quiz. The answers are at the end of the article.
- Our party will be from 3:00 pm ____ 6:00 pm.
- We will be gathering _____ three hours.
- Please dress in anything you'd like _____ wear.
- Gifts aren’t needed, but it’s okay if you want _____ bring a present.
- Mary wants toy horses _____ her birthday.
- _____ get to our house, turn left at the stop sign.
- Next, drive five miles _____ the east.
- Mary cannot wait ____ her friends ____ arrive.
- Everyone will go ______ the backyard to play on the trampoline.
- Finally, we will have cake and ice cream, and Mary will thank her friends _______ coming.
Deciding whether to use “to” vs. “for” mostly comes down to understanding what you are trying to communicate. Once you know that, choosing the right words is much easier.
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