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Not all Meanings of "But" Are Equal!

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/14/2012

When students need to say "but" and "but rather" in Spanish, they are often uncertain how to say it. The questions dealt with in this brief article can help you or your students avoid a multitude of grammatical tangles. The terms "pero," "sino" and "sino que" arfe not interchangeable!

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    Much Depends on Whether You Start Out on a Positive Note

    The word pero means but -- an adversative conjunction. It is adversative because it redirects the statement immediately preceding it. It is a conjunction because it will be followed by a clause -- containing a conjugated verb. The word pero is used when the introductory clause is an affirmative statement and when what follows does not contradict it but adds to it in some way:

    Vamos al teatro pero primero tenemos que comer (We're going to the theater but first we have to eat).

    Juan parece estar cansado pero duerme mucho (Juan seems tired but he sleeps a lot).

    If the introductory statement is negative, then sino is used. It also translates as but. However, what follows sino contradicts the opening statement. After sino, no conjugated verb is used. Instead, a noun, an adjective or an infinitive may be used:

    Juan no es estudiante sino professor (Juan isn't a student, but rather a professor). Note that student and professor are nouns.

    Juan no es alto sino bajo (Juan isn't tall, but rather short). Note that alto and bajo are adjectives.

    Juan no quiere estudiar sino mirar una película (Juan doesn't want to study, but rather to watch a movie). Note that estudiar and mirar are infinitives.

    If such negative statements are followed by a conjugated verb, then que must follow sino -- it is the function of que to introduce a subordinated clause. Clauses, by definition, contain conjugated verbs. Notice that unlike the previous example using an infinitive as the point of contrast, in the following examples, the first clause also concludes with a conjugated verb.

    Juan no estudia sino que trabaja (Juan doesn't study, but rather he works).

    Juan no es amable sino que maltrata a todos sus colegas (Juan isn't friendly, but rather he mistreats his coworkers).

    Juan no estudia mucho sino que pierde su tiempo mirando películas (Juan doesn't study much, but rather he wastes his time watching movies).


  • Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.

Spanish Usage

The articles in this series deal with various questions about the right choice of word or phrase when English may have one or two structures but Spanish has more. They often deal with prepositional issues.
  1. Spanish Usage Questions: "Above"
  2. Using "Actual" and "Actually" in Spanish
  3. A Problem Preposition: The Ways "About" is Expressed in Spanish
  4. The Many Spanish Faces of the English Verb "to Agree"
  5. Spanish Usage Questions: Ways to say "Again"
  6. Expressing the Many Meanings of After
  7. Spanish Usage Questions: How to Say "Ahead"
  8. Spanish Usage Questions: "Anyone" and "Anybody"
  9. Using "Anyway..." in Spanish
  10. Let's Learn About How to Talk About Appointments & Dating
  11. What Do You Use for "Around" in Spanish
  12. The Spanish Verbs Meaning "to Ask" are Many!
  13. Beware of False Cognates! How to Express "Attend," "Assist," and "Help"
  14. Are You "Cool" or "Cold"? Explore the Nuances in Spanish
  15. The Difference Between "Why" and "Because" in Spanish
  16. The Temporal and Spacial Meanings of "Before": How to Get it Right in Spanish
  17. Don't Be Left in the Dust! Learn to Express the Meanings of "Behind" in Spanish
  18. Get the Low Down on the Preposition "Below" and Say it Right in Spanish!
  19. Understand Saying "Help" in Spanish
  20. Translating "Beside" & "Besides" into Spanish: Interesting Solutions!
  21. Not all Meanings of "But" Are Equal!
  22. Expressing the Various Meanings of the Preposition "By" in Spanish
  23. What Can the English Word "Can" Mean and How to Get it Right in Spanish
  24. Spanish Usage Questions: "Corner"
  25. The Word "Country" in Spanish
  26. The Various Meanings of "Outweigh" in English and How to Express Them in Spanish
  27. Expressing the Idea of "Ownership" in Spanish
  28. How to Express "Time & Distance" in Spanish
  29. Treat, Try, Attempt, Deal with... In Spanish, You Probably Need "Tratar"
  30. Spanish Usage Questions: "Having Fun"
  31. Even a Word Like "Even" Has Many Counterparts in Spanish
  32. Don't Go Wrong When You Look for Ways to Express "to fail"
  33. Do You Mean "Fair" Weather, a "Fair" Game or a "Fair" Complexion? Learn How to Say Them in Spanish!
  34. Love, Desire and Wanting -- Spanish Style!
  35. Discover the Right Spanish Verbs for Taking, Holding, Grabbing... and More
  36. You Have Nothing to Fear Except Not Knowing How to Say "Fear" in Spanish!
  37. Spanish Equivalents of the Common English Word "Find"
  38. Discover the Various Meanings of "Middle" and How to Say Them in Spanish
  39. Not All Spanish Words Meaning "Worker" Are Created Equal