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From what I understand «зачем» means "for what purpose", trying to distinguish between that and «для чего» does not translate well. Additionally, how does «зачем» compare with «почему»?

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Зачем refers for factual purpose while для чего is for intended purpose (для чего эта кнопка? "what is this button for?" vs. зачем ты нажал эту кнопку? "why did you press this button?").

Почему asks for reasons or causes, not purposes — i.e. where meaningful intent is not involved (generally, anyway; you might come across some examples that blur these distinctions).

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  • 5
    in both your examples зачем and для чего are interchangeable, I believe. – Quassnoi Jan 21 '16 at 18:56
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    "Для чего ты нажал эту кнопку" is the same as "зачем ты нажал эту кнопку". There is no difference. Same for "для чего эта кнопка". – Abakan Jan 22 '16 at 9:04
  • @Quassnoi I've given it some more thought (judging by the comments, I'm ready to believe this time I've really made a contentious proposition) and I think that they are interchangeable, but asymmetrically so. Для чего can much more often be replaced by зачем than vice versa. For instance, if the pressing of the button was a pointless/annoying/disastrous thing to do, it's a very зачем situation; and that's consistent with the idea that для чего is asking about intentions which are, in this case, barely relevant. – Nikolay Ershov Jan 23 '16 at 3:49
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Both «зачем» and «для чего» in questions are synonyms and have the meaning "for what purpose".
In contrast, «почему» means "for what reason" (or "what is the reason").

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Для чего = What for
Почему = Why

Зачем may mean either of two, though the latter belongs mostly to XIX century speech:

Зачем у вас я на примете?
Не потому ль, что в высшем свете
Теперь являться я должна;
Что я богата и знатна...

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Зачем is about a purpose and почему is about circumstances

Imagine you meet friend in shop and ask him why is he came there. And this dialogue is happened:

- Зачем ты здесь / Why you are here?
- Купить молока / To buy a milk

Or it can be that way

- Почему ты здесь / Why you are here?
- У меня кончилось молоко / I ran out of milk

The difference is subtle and you can almost always replace one with the other without any problem.

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