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I recently came across a question about the meaning of this sentence:

No estoy alegre, sino más bien triste.
I’m not happy, (I’m actually) somewhat sad.

The question was:

What’s the difference between sino and más bien, and why are they used together?

Good question!

Let’s answer it by taking out the pieces, studying them in isolation and putting them back together again. Starting with sino.

{Negative statement}, sino {alternative}

The first thing you need to know about sino 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:

Agente, le juro que no fui yo el que robó ese coche, sino mi primo.
Agent, I swear (to you) that I wasn’t the one who stole that car, (it was) my cousin.

Sino deserves to be part of your Spanish arsenal because it’s perfect for one thing: providing an alternative to a negative statement.

In this example, the negative statement is no fui yo el que robó ese coche and the alternative is mi primo. Sino makes that transition seamless by pointing the finger at your cousin and helping you stay out of jail.

The alternative to using sino would be to start a new sentence and repeat the verb:

Agente, le juro que no fui yo el que robó ese coche. Fue mi primo.
Agent, I swear (to you) that I wasn’t the one who stole that car. It was my cousin.

When do you use sino?

Anytime you have two opposing statements (one positive and one negative), and you want to sound smart, you can use sino:

No me gustan los gansos. Me gustan los caballos.
I don’t like (the) geese. I like (the) horses.

No me gustan los gansos, sino los caballos.
I don’t like (the) geese, (I like) (the) horses

For sino 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:

Mi cuarto no está sucio, sino limpio.
My room is not dirty, (it is) clean. (Sounds kinda pedantic.)

Don’t feel the need to put on your fancy sino gloves just to highlight that clean means the same as not dirty.

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:

Mi cuarto no está sucio, sino que está menos limpio que el tuyo.
My room is not dirty, (what happens is that) it’s less clean than yours.

Wait a minute. What’s that que doing after sino?

{Negative statement}, sino que {alternative with a conjugated verb}

When the alternative contains a conjugated verb, we need to use sino que instead of the plain sino:

—No quedó con nosotros, sino que se fue con su novia.
“He didn’t meet up with us, (what happened was that) he went (out) with his girlfriend.”

—Bueno, eso no lo decidió él, sino que lo decidió ella.
“Well, he didn’t decide that, (what happened was that) she decided it.”

For our purposes, a conjugated verb is any verb that isn’t an infinitive or a gerund. Grammar junkies call these nonfinite forms, but we can just call them to-verbs and -ing verbs:

—Lo siento por lo de ayer. No quería que te enfadaras, sino hablar contigo.
“I’m sorry about yesterday. I didn’t want you to get mad, (what I wanted was) to talk to you.”

—Tú dirás lo que quieras, pero no me llamaste para hablar, sino buscando pelea.
“(You will say) what you want, but you didn’t call me to talk, (you did it) looking (for a) fight.”

The to-verb in the first sentence is hablar (to talk) and the -ing verb in the second one is buscando (looking). These are the only two verb forms that use sino–every other verb form uses sino que.

Got it.

What about más bien?

Más bien

Más bien, like sino, 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: somewhat and rather.

—Me siento más bien nervioso por este negocio.
I feel somewhat nervous because of this business.

—En tu lugar, yo pensaría más bien en las ganancias que nos esperan.
In your place, I would rather think about the profits that await us.

Since más bien is not often used by itself, let’s focus on its meaning as a sino-sidekick.

{Negative statement}, sino más bien {alternative}

I think we’re ready now. Let’s decode the sentence that sparked this article:

No estoy alegre, sino más bien triste.
I’m not happy, (I’m actually) somewhat sad.

No estoy alegre is a negative statement, más bien triste is the toned-down alternative, and sino is the fancy glue that connects them by highlighting their differences.

In case you’re curious, we can easily add a conjugated verb to the alternative:

No estoy alegre, sino que más bien me siento triste.
I’m not happy, (I actually) feel somewhat sad.

But anyway, enough sadness!

Since we’ve spent a bunch of time exploring the sino archipelago, we might as well visit some of its nearby islands before we sail back home.

Bonus 1: {Implicit negative statement} sino {alternative}

Up until now, we’ve dealt with explicit negative statements (no fui yo el que robó ese coche, no me gustan los gansos, no estoy alegre), but sometimes Spanish people get poetic and omit the negative thing. When the thing we negate is implicit, sino means except:

No quiero sino tu amor.
I don’t want (anything), except your love.

The explicit version would be:

No quiero nada, sino tu amor.
I don’t want (anything), (I want) your love.

Unless your day job is to write lyrics for Enrique Iglesias don’t bother with the implicit sino. A much more common alternative is to just use excepto or otra cosa que:

No quiero otra cosa que tu amor.
I don’t want (any) other thing besides your love.

Bonus 2: {Negative statement with solo}, sino {additional members}

When the negative statement starts with no… solo, it indicates that a partial list is coming. In this situation, sino is used to introduce the missing list members:

Clara no es solo mi novia y mi amiga, sino también mi contable.
Clara is not only my girlfriend and my friend, (she is also) my accountant.

In these cases, sino is optionally followed by también or además (too, also, as well)

Bonus 3: pero

What’s this island doing here?

Well, you might have noticed that I have stubbornly avoided translating sino as but. I’ve done this to minimize the chances that you’ll confuse sino with pero, but in case you do, remember that but is only pero if you can replace it with although:

—Me apetecía verte hoy, pero hasta mañana no puedo.
“I felt like seeing you today, (but/although) until tomorrow, I can’t.”

—Pues yo no contaba con verte hoy, sino mañana, así que perfecto.
“(Well) I wasn’t counting on seeing you today, (but/I was counting on seeing you) tomorrow, so that’s perfect.”

Bonus 4: si no

Last confusing island. What happens if there is a space between si and no?

Sino and si no 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:

No puedo terminar la tortilla si no me pasas los huevos.
I can’t finish the Spanish tortilla if you don’t pass me the eggs

Sin huevos no sería una tortilla, sino unas tristes patatas fritas.
Without eggs it wouldn’t be a Spanish tortilla, (it would be) (a bunch of) sad fried potatoes.

Since you speak English, you actually have a leg up on the natives: if it makes sense to stick an if… not in place of si no leave a space; otherwise, use sino.

In case you’re wondering, natives use a different trick: if it feels right to add a subject between si and no, leave a space; otherwise, don’t.

That’s enough exploring for one day. Time to sail back home.

Spanish takeaways

  • Sino is a mildly formal but elegant way to provide a non-obvious alternative to a negative statement, without having to start a new sentence.

  • If the alternative contains a conjugated verb (any verb except a to-verb or a -ing verb), we use sino que instead of sino.

  • Más bien is often used after sino to tone down the alternative.

  • Spanish words are easier to learn when you get a feel for their usage, rather than relying on direct translations from English (that’s where most of the pero/sino and por/para confusion comes from).

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