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When should one use “a” in place of “de/para”? To clarify here are two examples of the word “a” being used in this case:

  • “Le compraron la casa a mi padre” which translates to “They bought the house from/for my father”

  • “Carmen les roba los collares a las personas viejas” which translates to “Carmen stole the necklace from the elderly people”

Why is “a” used in these instances and is it acceptable to use “de/para” in place of “a”?

  • In the first example, I understand "le compraron la casa a mi padre" as "They bought the house from my father". To say "for my father" I would say "compraron la casa para mi padre" (without the initial "le"). – Charlie Feb 20 '18 at 21:02
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In both examples, the a preposition is preceding the indirect object of the sentences. The use of "le" and "les" reinforces that:

Le compraron la casa a mi padre.
Carmes les roba los collares a las personas viejas.

The text in bold in both cases refer to the same object. So

Le = a mi padre
Les = a las personas viejas

Dealing with indirect objects requires the use of the a preposition, as noted in the DLE:

  1. prep. Precede al complemento indirecto. Legó su fortuna a los pobres.

If you change the preposition for para, then you do not have an indirect object, but something that expresses the purpose of what is expressed by the verb, and note that then you do not need le/s:

Compraron la casa para mi padre.
Carmen roba los collares para las personas viejas.

Of course, you could say:

Carmen les roba los collares para las personas viejas.

But then les does not refer to las personas viejas, but to other object. You could also use de:

Carmen roba los collares de las personas viejas.

But thus you have a sentence with a direct object (in bold) and no indirect object.

So:

Carmen les roba los collares a las personas viejas. Carmen steals the necklaces from the elderly people.
Carmen roba los collares para las personas viejas. Carmen steals the necklaces for the elderly people.
Carmen roba los collares de las personas viejas. Carmen steals the elderly people's necklaces.

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Outstanding answer by @Charlie. Here's a supplemental remark.

As Charlie pointed out in his comment below the question

In the first example, I understand "le compraron la casa a mi padre" as "They bought the house from my father".

I think it might be helpful for you to understand a bit more about what this preposition a does here and in general.

First, "a" connects the associated object with the verb in its most essential way. "A" points to someone or something directly.

The second thing is that when the object of a verb is a person, we introduce "a" to show this personhood. Example:

Amo los cuadros pintados por mi vecina. | I love the pictures painted by my neighbor.

Amo a mi vecina. | I love my neighbor.

So "a" is a very special pronoun. I hope these two features help you get to know "a" better.

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