Sometimes, even native speakers get it wrong. Many English speakers, for example, get confused between you're and your or whose and who's. Believe it or not, Spanish has some similar stumbling blocks – like the difference between porque, por qué, por que and porqué.
The four terms are pronounced more or less the same. The main difference is is that por qué and porqué have more emphasis on the second syllable, while porque and porqué have more emphasis on the first, a fact that should be easy to remember if you learn the rules for Spanish accents and word stress.
The important thing is the spelling. Like who's vs. whose or its vs it's, writing the wrong porque can change the meaning of a sentence, or break it altogether. That said, like a misplaced its, people will probably be able to tell what you were trying to say. But getting it right is still important in formal writing.
So here's the only thing you'll ever need to read on the subject of the four porques. Read it, study all four cases, and practice using them. It shouldn't take too long to drill into your mind.
1. ¿Por qué? – “Why”
Which of the four versions is the most common? It's a toss-up between por qué and porque. They're perhaps the two that are the easiest to confuse with each other.
We'll cover por qué first. It means “why”, and is rarely translated as any other English word.
Por qué can be used as a question, in which case don't forget both the opening and closing question marks:
- ¿Por qué lo hiciste? – “Why did you do it?”
- ¿Por qué me llamaría? – “Why would she call me?”
- ¿Por qué no estás aquí? – “Why aren't you here?”
Or as a reported question:
- Me preguntó por qué no fui. – “He/she asked me why I didn't go.”
- No sé por qué no lo hablé. – “I don't know why I said it.”
So the rule is easy to remember: if you're asking “why?”, use “por qué”.
2. Porque – “Because”
Por qué and porque often travel as a couple. Ask a question with ¿por qué? – “why?” – and you'll probably hear a porque – “because” – in the response:
- ¿Por qué lo hiciste? Porque fue gracioso – “Why did you do it? Because it was funny.”
- ¿Por qué me llamaría?Porque le gustas – “Why would she call me? Because she likes you.”
- Por qué ¿quieres escalar el Monte Everest? “Porque está ahí – Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest? Because it's there.”
Like “because” in English, you can use porque to link two clauses when the second explains the first:
- Aún no lo he leído porque no he tenido tiempo – “I still haven't read it because I don't have time.”
- Ganó porque es mas fuerte – “He won because he's stronger.”
- No tenía ganas porque estaba muy cansada – “I didn't feel like it because I was very tired.”
If you're struggling to remember which way around por qué and porque go, it might help to brush up on the Spanish accent rules. Remember that qué with a question mark typically indicates a direct question. That should help you to remember that ¿por qué? is usually a question, while porque is more likely found in a statement.
If you're a beginner, you can probably stop here. Porque and por qué are much more common than the remaining two items on this list. If you try to learn the others now, you might just confuse yourself.
With that warning, let's proceed:
3. Por que – “For which”
Por que is perhaps the trickiest of the three. It means “for which”, and before we get in the details, it might help to look at the English.
When you think about it, the exact words “for which” aren't actually very common in English. Using it can sound quite formal and stuffy:
“That's the prize for which I was nominated.”
This sentence isn't wrong, but it sounds a bit weird. It's more natural to say “That's the one (which) I was nominated for”, moving the preposition to the end.
But remember that in Spanish, a sentence can't end with a preposition. Instead, you must use a word order closer to the “stuffy” English version:
- Es el motivo por que lo hice – “It's the reason why (for which) I did it.”
- No entiendo la razón por que es posible. “I don't know why (the reason for which) it's possible.”
You should also use por que when a phrasal verb like preocuparse por (“to worry about”) or luchar por (“to fight for”) is naturally followed by a que:
- Se preocupa por que no le guste. – “She's worried that she won't like it.”
From that last sentence, you might see that por que can be a bit confusing. Don't feel too bad – this is one of those things that even native speakers mess up sometimes.
My suggestion is to spend more time studying the word que and how it's used with prepositions and in relative clauses. It's beyond the scope of this article, but the more deeply you understand how other prepositions can hang on to que in terms like en que and al que, the easier you'll find it to parse sentences where por is attached to a que.
(Quick note for grammar geeks: While this is certainly true for Spanish that you can't end a sentence with a preposition, it's a myth that the same rule applies to English. See here for more of an explanation.)
4. El porqué – “The reason”
Last but not least, and probably the easiest of the four: el porqué is a relatively uncommon masculine noun meaning “the reason”.
- Dime el porqué no quieres ir – Tell me the reason you don't want to come.
- Creo que es el porqué de su decisión – I think that's the reason for his decision.
Porqué isn't used very often, but it's still a fun little noun to spice up your vocabulary. Again, if you're just getting started, don't worry about porqué yet. The other three cases are more important to learn.
How to Make Sure You Know the Difference Between “Por qué”, “Porque”, “Por que” and “Porqué”
As you can see, the rules aren't that complicated.
If you're struggling, I suggest you don't spend too much time studying the “rules” directly. Instead, find or create a bunch of example sentences that cover all four porques and put them on flashcards.
The more examples you see and hear of natural Spanish sentences that use these four words, the more you'll get an intuitive feel for they work.