Episode 69: Sino vs. Pero; When to Use Which?

Today's episode will be a bit longer than normal, but it covers a topic I've really wanted to talk about for a long time. We all know how to use the conjunction but in English, but Spanish actually differentiates between the different nuances of but with the words sino and pero. This can be tricky for English-speakers, so today we'll do a deep dive into what these words mean and how to correctly use them! And for our Cultural Tip, we'll begin looking at Guatemala. :)


Understanding Sino and Pero

In both English and Spanish, sino, pero, and but are conjunctions that generally provide a means of contradicting the first part of a sentence. For example, in English you might say "I wanted to eat my cake, but I was worried about gaining weight." In this instance, but connects the two phrases "I wanted to eat my cake" and "I was worried about gaining weight", while also tells the listener that you didn't eat the cake because you were worried about gaining weight. But without having to say all of that, as it's simply implied in that one little word: but.

Yet if you stop to think about it, but is a pretty versatile word, as are its Spanish equivalents, sino and pero. You can use these words to add clarifying information, to make a correction to an assumption or statement, to provide emphasis, or to even make an exception. Sino and pero are also nouns, giving them even more versatility!

So let's get into more of the nitty gritty with each word!


You generally use pero in these five ways:

  1. To contradict a positive phrase. Notice how, in the examples below, the second clause that pero connects to simply adds more information to the first clause while denoting the first clause doesn't happen or doesn't happen as often as one would expect. --> Quería venir, pero le tiene miedo a los perros. He wanted to come along, but he's afraid of dogs. --> Me encanta viajar, pero no tengo el dinero para hacerlo a menudo. I love to travel, but I don't have the money to do it often.

  2. To contradict a negative phrase, but for different things or for things that aren't contrasting. In the first example below, the implied assumption is the stereotype that Americans love hot dogs. But even though the speaker isn't American, the negative phrase (he's not American), he still enjoys hot dogs, which is the contradiction. --> No soy estadounidense, pero me encantan los perritos calientes. I'm not American, but I love hot dogs. In this second example, the speaker is talking about related things - two countries - but is not trying to contrast the two countries. --> Nunca he estado en Suiza, pero disfruté mucho de Alemania. I have never been to Switzerland, but I very much enjoyed Germany. If we made this sentence contrasting, it would look more like this: --> No fui a Suiza sino a Alemania. I did not go to Switzerland but to Germany. And that's why we use sino here, because the sentence is contrasting two similar, contrasting items. (Side note: if you could substitute but for but rather, then the word you want is sino, not pero. But we'll go more into sino here in a minute.)

  3. To add emphasis. Generally, you add pero at the beginning of a sentence when you do this. It can be used to highlight a negative phrase or to highlight a positive phrase (but I find that the former sounds more like protesting something, and the latter like whining, at least in English): --> ¡Pero a él no le gusta el chocolate! But he doesn't like chocolate! --> ¡Pero yo quería comer eso! But I wanted to eat that! It can also be used to highlight surprise or even other emotions. --> ¿Pero cómo? But how? --> Pero, ¡qué maravilloso bailarín! But what a wonderful dancer!

  4. In the phrase, pero que muy. This is a way to really highlight adverbs or adjectives in a sentence. --> Ella toca el violín pero que muy bien. She plays the violin very well. --> Ella toca el violonchelo pero que muy mal. She plays the cello very badly.

  5. As a noun. When used this way, pero can mean either a defect or it can mean an objection. --> Ella siempre encuentra peros ridículos en sus novios. She always finds ridiculous flaws in her boyfriends. --> ¡Sin peros, haz tu tarea! No buts, do your homework! (You could also say: No hay pero que valga, ¡haz tu tarea! No hay pero que valga could be translated as "There is no worthwhile objection", but it's better translated as the equivalent of our "No ifs, ands, or buts!". It may be my new favorite phrase! :D )


You generally use sino in these seven ways (remember that for all uses, except as a noun, sino must come after a negative clause!):

  1. To contradict a negative phrase (remember, it cannot be positive), but for contrasting, related items. Generally, when used this way, you could translate sino as the English phrases but rather or but instead. --> No me gusta el helado de chocolate, sino el de vainilla. I don't like chocolate ice cream, but rather vanilla. --> No quería hacer su tarea, sino que salió a caminar. He did not want to do his homework, but instead went for a walk. (Note how, in the above example, that the contrasting but similar items are the activities that the person did not want/did want to do. If you instead have a contrast for things that are not similar, then you use pero. Think in terms of opposites. For example: No es mala persona, pero es raro. He's not a bad person, but he is weird. It might look like that it should be sino, but really you are just adding more information to the first clause, and weird is not the opposite of bad. These items are not really similar, and that's why it's pero. You are admitting that he's not a bad person, but he is a weird person. If you wanted to use sino, you would need to say something more like: No es mala persona, sino buena. He's not a bad person, but a good one. Do you see the difference? When you use sino, you are contrasting two similar items, two items that are the opposite of each other: good and bad. Same in the example below: -->No está feliz, sino triste. He's not happy, but sad.)

  2. To make a correction to a statement or a question. Again, the first phrase must be negative. --> La geología no es el estudio de formas matemáticas, sino de la tierra. Estás pensando en geometría. Geology is not the study of mathematical shapes, but of earth. You're thinking of geometry. --> ¿Stacy hizo esto? No, ella no lo hizo, sino Robert. Did Stacy do this? No, she didn't do it, but rather Robert did. (I love how much simpler it is to say that last phrase in Spanish. Sino Robert. This would have made tattling growing up way easier! :D Although, perhaps that wouldn't have been a good thing! :D )

  3. To express an exception, or to say that someone/something alone has an attribute or ability. --> Nadie me lo dijo sino Clara. No one told me but Clara. -->No escucha a nadie sino a su novia. He doesn't listen to anyone but his girlfriend.

  4. To express just or only, in the sense of this quote from the Real Academia Española's online dictionary: "No te pido sino que me oigas con paciencia." (I only ask that you listen to me patiently.)

  5. In the phrase sino que, which to me seems to add emphasis to your contrasting statement. When you use this phrase, you have to add a conjugated verb to the second clause. --> No me dieron el regalo a mí, sino que se lo dieron a Larry. They did not give the gift to me, but rather they gave it to Larry. (You could still say, "No me dieron el regalo a mí, sino a Larry.", but by having the "sino que se lo dieron", I think that you add more emphasis and really highlight how upset you are that they gave it to Larry instead.) -->Ellas no lo pintaron de azul, sino que lo pintaron de verde. They did not paint him blue, but instead painted him green.

  6. In the phrase No solo....sino que también, which is the equivalent of our Not only....but also. Interestingly, as Daniela Sanchez points out in her article on this topic, this version of sino is the more fancy, formal way of saying pero. --> ¡Mis padres no solo limpiaron mi apartamento, sino que también me trajeron la cena! Not only did my parents clean my apartment, but they also brought me dinner! -->No solo es Él inteligente, sino que también es lindo y atractivo. Not only is he smart, but he's sweet and good-looking too.

  7. As a noun. When used this way, sino means destiny or fate. --> Es su sino encontrar el tesoro. It is his destiny to find the treasure. --> Aparentemente, tratar con el público será mi sino. Apparently, dealing with the public will be my fate.


To sum it up, there are two main differences between how you use sino and pero in Spanish.

  1. Pero is generally used to add more information to the topic or to add emphasis. -->Fui al supermercardo, pero no tenían leche. I went to the grocery store, but they were out of milk. -->¡Pero no quiero comer mis zanahorias! But I don't want to eat my carrots!

  2. Sino can only be used when there is a negative clause before it, and it generally shows contradiction (and sometimes correction) for contrasting, similar things. It can also show exceptions, and is often the equivalent of but rather, but instead, or Not only...but also. --> No soy americana, sino británica. I'm not American, but British. --> A ese gato no le gusta nadie sino yo. That cat doesn't like anyone but me.

Fun Phrases

Here are two more fun phrases I found at WordReference.com while researching this episode:

  • Dios aprieta pero no ahorca. Literally, this translates to God squeezes but does not strangle. It's really the equivalent of our It's always darkest before the dawn sentiment.

  • Sin prisa pero sin pausa. Literally, this translates to Without haste but without pause. It's really the equivalent of our Slowly but surely.

That's all for today! This episode is a little longer than normal, but I hope it has really helped clarify the differences between sino and pero!

Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.

¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!


Cultural Tip: Guatemala

Country Facts

Name: Republica de Guatemala, or Republic of Guatemala

Size: According to the World Factbook, Guatemala is just a bit smaller than the state of Pennsylvania.

Location: Located in Central America just south of Mexico, touching the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, as well as bordering El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize.

Government Type: Presidential republic. The current president is President Alejandro Giammattei, as of January 2020. He is both head of government and the chief of state. Interestingly, both the president and the vice president are elected by popular vote for 4-year terms. The legislative consists of a unicameral Congress of the Republic (Congreso de la Republica), with a total of 160 seats. Of these, 128 are directly elected via multi-seat constituences, and 32 are, and I quote the World Factbook, "directly elected in a single nationwide constituency by closed party-list proportional representation vote". Goodness! That sounds a bit complicated. Lastly, the judicial branch has two important courts: the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia), which has 13 magistrates, including a president, who are elected by Congress for 5-year terms, albeit the presidency changes every year; and the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad), which has 10 magistrates total, 5 titular and 5 substitute, each elected for 5-year terms. This court is interesting in that one magistrate is elected by Congress, one by the Supreme Court, 1 by the President, 1 by the public Unversity of San Carlos, and the last one by the Assembly of the College of Attorneys and Notaries.

Capital City: Guatemala City

Religion: As of 2018, about 41.7% are Roman Catholic and 38.8% are Evangelical.

Official Language: Spanish is the country's official language, but they passed a law in 2003, the Law of National Languages, that officially recognizes 23 indigenous languages (i.e., Xinca, Garifuna, and 21 Mayan languages).

Currency: Quetzales (GTQ)

Brief History

The Mayans lived in Guatemala for thousands of years, and controlled the area from about 250 AD to 900 AD. Then their society mysteriously collapsed and many went to Mexico. Yet the Mayans also continued in Guatemala, and it was them that the Spaniards conquered in the 16th century AD. What we now call Guatemala became a part of New Spain until South America fought for its independence in the 19th century. Guatemala was going to annex themselves to Mexico under Mexico's new ruler, Agustín de Iturbide, but he did not last long and Guatemala then joined the United Provinces of Central America (this included Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica), or also known as the Central American Federation. Yet due to regional differences, the federation fell apart by 1838 and became their own, independent nations.

This is where it gets complicated. Guatemala has had many different forms of government. Pretty soon after they were a free nation, Rafael Carrera took over as dictator. After he died in 1865, Justo Rufino Barrios took over and made many changes, such as secularizing education and allowing foreign investment, gaining the title The Reformer. He died in 1885, and Guatemala had a few other rulers until General Jorge Ubico became president, i.e. dictator, in 1931. But due to his repressive manner of ruling, Guatemalans revolted and he was forced to resign and go into exile in 1944. The next president was the country's first actually elected president, Juan José Arévalo, although he had to deal with numerous attempts to overthrow him.

Then things get interesting. In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz becomes the next president and the following year requires that all unused land be redistributed to the country's poor. Unfortunately for him, a lot of this land belonged to the American United Fruit Company, the country's largest employer, and they were unhappy about the small compensation they received for losing their land. Washington actually got involved and the CIA trained exiled Guatemalans in Honduras. They invaded Guatemala in 1954, Arbenz fled, and Carlos Castillo Armas took over. Only to be assassinated three years later. What followed over the next three decades were a string of repressive military regimes and guerrilla warfare with left-wing groups. The guerrilla war was terrible, killing hundreds of thousands of people. In 1982, the largest guerrilla groups formed the URNG, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit. The peak of the violence was in the early 1980s, but in 1986 Vinicio Cerezo was elected by the people as president and things became a little more stable. Then Álvaro Arzú took over in 1996 and was able to sign the Peace Accords with the URNG, thereby officially ending the war. Today, Guatemala is more stable and enjoys a democratic system.



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