Using "sino más bien" like a Spanish Native

September 5, 2016
<p>I recently came across a <a href="">question</a> about the meaning of this sentence:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No estoy alegre, sino más bien triste.</span><br><span class="en">I'm not happy, (I'm actually) somewhat sad.</span></p></div><p>The question was:</p><!-- TODO quote --><div class="translation"><p>What's the difference between <span class="sp">sino</span> and <span class="sp">más bien</span>, and why are they used together?</p></div><p>Good question!</p><p>Let's answer it by taking out the pieces, studying them in isolation and putting them back together again. Starting with <span class="sp">sino</span>.</p><!--excerpt--><h2>{Negative statement}, <span class="sp">sino</span> {alternative}</h2><p>The first thing you need to know about <span class="sp">sino</span> is that it brings along a hint of formality–you probably wouldn't use it to pick a fight at a dive bar, but it would be very appropriate when trying to convince a police officer that you're not guilty:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Agente, le juro que no fui yo el que robó ese coche, <strong>sino</strong> mi primo.</span><br><span class="en">Agent, I swear (to you) that I wasn't the one who stole that car, (it was) my cousin.</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">Sino</span> deserves to be part of your Spanish arsenal because it's perfect for one thing: <strong>providing an alternative to a negative statement</strong>.</p><p>In this example, the negative statement is <span class="sp">no fui yo el que robó ese coche</span> and the alternative is <span class="sp">mi primo</span>. <span class="sp">Sino</span> makes that transition seamless by pointing the finger at your cousin and helping you stay out of jail.</p><p>The alternative to using <span class="sp">sino</span> would be to start a new sentence and repeat the verb:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Agente, le juro que no fui yo el que robó ese coche. <strong>Fue</strong> mi primo.</span><br><span class="en">Agent, I swear (to you) that I wasn't the one who stole that car. It was my cousin.</span></p></div><h3>When do you use <span class="sp">sino</span>?</h3><p>Anytime you have two opposing statements (one positive and one negative), and you want to sound smart, you can use <span class="sp">sino</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No me gustan los gansos. Me gustan los caballos.</span><br><span class="en">I don't like (the) geese. I like (the) horses.</span></p><p><span class="sp">No me gustan los gansos, <strong>sino</strong> los caballos.</span><br><span class="en">I don't like (the) geese, (I like) (the) horses</span></p></div><p>For <span class="sp">sino</span> to do its magic, something non-obvious needs to come after it, otherwise you'll look like one of those people who stick their pinky out when they're drinking tea:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Mi cuarto no está sucio, <strong>sino</strong> limpio.</span><br><span class="en">My room is not dirty, (it is) clean. (Sounds kinda pedantic.)</p></div><p>Don't feel the need to put on your fancy <span class="sp">sino</span> gloves just to highlight that <em>clean</em> means the same as <em>not dirty</em>.</p><p>I can't think of any non-obvious opposing adjective to finish that example, so let's make it more interesting by using a conjugated verb:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Mi cuarto no está sucio, <strong>sino que</strong> está menos limpio que el tuyo.</span><br><span class="en">My room is not dirty, (what happens is that) it's less clean than yours.</span></p></div><p>Wait a minute. What's that <span class="sp">que</span> doing after <span class="sp">sino</span>?</p><h2>{Negative statement}, <span class="sp"><strong>sino que</strong></span> {alternative with a conjugated verb}</h2><p>When the alternative contains a <strong>conjugated verb</strong>, we need to use <span class="sp">sino que</span> instead of the plain <span class="sp">sino</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—No quedó con nosotros, <strong>sino que</strong> se fue con su novia.</span><br><span class="en">"He didn't meet up with us, (what happened was that) he went (out) with his girlfriend."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Bueno, eso no lo decidió él, <strong>sino que</strong> lo decidió ella.</span><br><span class="en">"Well, he didn't decide that, (what happened was that) she decided it."</span></p></div><p>For our purposes, a conjugated verb is any verb that isn't an <em>infinitive</em> or a <em>gerund</em>. Grammar junkies call these <em>nonfinite forms</em>, but we can just call them <strong>to-verbs</strong> and <strong>-ing verbs</strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Lo siento por lo de ayer. No quería que te enfadaras, <strong>sino hablar</strong> contigo.</span><br><span class="en">"I'm sorry about yesterday. I didn't want you to get mad, (what I wanted was) to talk to you."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Tú dirás lo que quieras, pero no me llamaste para hablar, <strong>sino buscando</strong> pelea.</span><br><span class="en">"(You will say) what you want, but you didn't call me to talk, (you did it) looking (for a) fight."</span></p></div><p>The to-verb in the first sentence is <span class="sp">hablar</span> (<span class="en">to talk</span>) and the -ing verb in the second one is <span class="sp">buscando</span> (<span class="en">looking</span>). These are the only two verb forms that use <span class="sp">sino</span>–every other verb form uses <span class="sp">sino que</span>.</p><p>Got it.</p><p>What about <span class="sp">más bien</span>?</p><h2><span class="sp">Más bien</span></h2><p><span class="sp">Más bien</span>, like <span class="sp">sino</span>, is also a bit of a fancy word choice, especially when used by itself. It has two subtly different meanings that serve to tone down what comes after them: <em>somewhat</em> and <em>rather</em>.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Me siento <strong>más bien</strong> nervioso por este negocio.</span><br><span class="en">I feel somewhat nervous because of this business.</span></p><p><span class="sp">—En tu lugar, yo pensaría <strong>más bien</strong> en las ganancias que nos esperan.</span><br><span class="en">In your place, I would rather think about the profits that await us.</span></p></div><p>Since <span class="sp">más bien</span> is not often used by itself, let's focus on its meaning as a <span class="sp">sino</span>-sidekick.</p><h2>{Negative statement}, <span class="sp"><strong>sino más bien</strong></span> {alternative}</h2><p>I think we're ready now. Let's decode the sentence that sparked this article:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No estoy alegre, sino más bien triste.</span><br><span class="en">I'm not happy, (I'm actually) somewhat sad.</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">No estoy alegre</span> is a negative statement, <span class="sp">más bien triste</span> is the toned-down alternative, and <span class="sp">sino</span> is the fancy glue that connects them by highlighting their differences.</p><p>In case you're curious, we can easily add a conjugated verb to the alternative:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No estoy alegre, sino <strong>que</strong> más bien <strong>me siento</strong> triste.</span><br><span class="en">I'm not happy, (I actually) feel somewhat sad.</span></p></div><p>But anyway, enough sadness!</p><p>Since we've spent a bunch of time exploring the <span class="sp">sino</span> archipelago, we might as well visit some of its nearby islands before we sail back home.</p><h2>Bonus 1: {Implicit negative statement} <span class="sp"><strong>sino</strong></span> {alternative}</h2><p>Up until now, we've dealt with explicit negative statements (<span class="sp">no fui yo el que robó ese coche</span>, <span class="sp">no me gustan los gansos</span>, <span class="sp">no estoy alegre</span>), but sometimes Spanish people get poetic and omit the negative thing. When the thing we negate is implicit, <span class="sp">sino</span> means <span class="en">except</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No quiero <strong>sino</strong> tu amor. </span><br><span class="en">I don't want (anything), except your love.</span></p></div><p>The explicit version would be:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No quiero <strong>nada</strong>, <strong>sino</strong> tu amor. </span><br><span class="en">I don't want (anything), (I want) your love.</span></p></div><p>Unless your day job is to write lyrics for Enrique Iglesias don't bother with the implicit <span class="sp">sino</span>. A much more common alternative is to just use <span class="sp">excepto</span> or <span class="sp">otra cosa que</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No quiero <strong>otra cosa que</strong> tu amor.</span><br><span class="en">I don't want (any) other thing besides your love.</span></p></div><h2>Bonus 2: {Negative statement with <span class="sp">solo</span>}, <span class="sp"><strong>sino</strong></span> {additional members}</h2><p>When the negative statement starts with <span class="sp">no… solo</span>, it indicates that a partial list is coming. In this situation, <span class="sp">sino</span> is used to introduce the missing list members:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Clara <strong>no</strong> es <strong>solo</strong> mi novia y mi amiga, <strong>sino</strong> también mi contable.</span><br><span class="en">Clara is not only my girlfriend and my friend, (she is also) my accountant.</span></p></div><p>In these cases, <span class="sp">sino</span> is optionally followed by <span class="sp">también</span> or <span class="sp">además</span> (<span class="en">too, also, as well</span>)</p><h2>Bonus 3: <span class="sp">pero</span></h2><p>What's this island doing here?</p><p>Well, you might have noticed that I have stubbornly avoided translating <span class="sp">sino</span> as <span class="en">but</span>. I've done this to minimize the chances that you'll confuse <span class="sp">sino</span> with <span class="sp">pero</span>, but in case you do, remember that <strong><em>but</em> is only <span class="sp">pero</span> if you can replace it with <em>although</em></strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Me apetecía verte hoy, <strong>pero</strong> hasta mañana no puedo.</span><br><span class="en">"I felt like seeing you today, (but/although) until tomorrow, I can't."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Pues yo no contaba con verte hoy, <strong>sino</strong> mañana, así que perfecto.</span><br><span class="en">"(Well) I wasn't counting on seeing you today, (but/I was counting on seeing you) tomorrow, so that's perfect."</span></p></div><h2>Bonus 4: <span class="sp">si no</span></h2><p>Last confusing island. What happens if there is a space between <span class="sp">si</span> and <span class="sp">no</span>?</p><p><span class="sp">Sino</span> and <span class="sp">si no</span> mean completely different things, but it's such a common error (even among natives) that we can't wrap up this article before dealing with it:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No puedo terminar la tortilla <strong>si no</strong> me pasas los huevos.</span><br><span class="en">I can't finish the Spanish tortilla if you don't pass me the eggs</span></p><p><span class="sp">Sin huevos no sería una tortilla, <strong>sino</strong> unas tristes patatas fritas.</span><br><span class="en">Without eggs it wouldn't be a Spanish tortilla, (it would be) (a bunch of) sad fried potatoes.</span></p></div><p>Since you speak English, you actually have a leg up on the natives: if it makes sense to stick an <span class="en">if… not</span> in place of <span class="sp">si no</span> leave a space; otherwise, use <span class="sp">sino</span>.</p><p>In case you're wondering, natives use a different trick: if it feels right to add a subject between <span class="sp">si</span> and <span class="sp">no</span>, leave a space; otherwise, don't.</p><p>That's enough exploring for one day. Time to sail back home.</p><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><ul><li><p><span class="sp">Sino</span> is a mildly formal but elegant way to provide a non-obvious <strong>alternative to a negative statement</strong>, without having to start a new sentence.</p></li><li><p>If the alternative contains a conjugated verb (any verb except a to-verb or a -ing verb), we use <span class="sp"><strong>sino que</strong></span> instead of <span class="sp"><strong>sino</strong></span>.</p></li><li><p><span class="sp"><strong>Más bien</strong></span> is often used after <span class="sp">sino</span> to tone down the alternative.</p></li><li><p>Spanish words are easier to learn when you <strong>get a feel for their usage</strong>, rather than relying on direct translations from English (that's where most of the <span class="sp">pero/sino</span> and <a href=""><span class="sp">por/para</span> confusion</a> comes from).</p></li></ul>