Sino vs. Si No: Demystifying the Spanish Word Pair Even Native Speakers Mess Up
Native Spanish speakers spend their whole lives reading, writing, speaking and listening to Spanish, yet there are still aspects of the language they have trouble with.
Take sino and si no—you might have assumed that they could be used interchangeably, which unfortunately isn’t the case.
This post will demystify these two deceptively similar words. By the end of it, you may even be able to explain the difference to a native Spanish speaker!
- Si No vs. Sino (and El Sino): Mastering the Basics
- Si No: Translation and Correct Usage
- Sino: Translation and Correct Usage
- El Sino: Translation and Correct Usage
- Practicing Sino vs Si No: 2 Helpful Strategies
Si No vs. Sino (and El Sino): Mastering the Basics
The words si no and sino are short and easy to remember. But when you have to use them, things can get a little tricky.
Before we get into our in-depth explanations, let’s briefly introduce each word:
Si no means “if not.” It introduces a negative conditional, and it’s always written as two separate words:
Si no llueve, iremos a la playa. (If it doesn’t rain, we’ll go to the beach.)
No habríamos llegado tarde si no te hubieras quedado dormido. (We wouldn’t have been late if you hadn’t overslept.)
Sino is an adversative conjunction, and it means “but.” It’s always a single word, and it’ll always follow a negative statement:
No quiero el sombrero negro, sino el rojo. (I don’t want the black hat, but the red one.)
No son siete, sino ocho. (They’re not [a group of] seven, but [of] eight.)
And, because we’re feeling generous today, we’ll throw in a third term: el sino.
That’s right: sino can also function as a noun. El sino translates to “fate” or “destiny.”
No es mi sino ser rico. (It’s not my fate to be rich.)
¡Era nuestro sino! (It was our destiny!)
Pretty easy so far, right? Consider this your basic primer to si no and sino. If you want to tap out now, that’s fine. But there’s more you should know about these words if you really want to use them correctly.
If you want to take a deep dive into si no and sino, like the grammar ninja you know you are, read on.
Si No: Translation and Correct Usage
Use si no to mean “if not”
As mentioned above, si no introduces a negative conditional and it translates to “if not.”
Just like the positive conditional si , it can appear in all types of conditional sentences, and it can either begin the whole sentence or start the second phrase. Have a look:
Si no lo veo, no lo creo. (If I don’t see it, I don’t believe it.)
No lo compraré si no tengo dinero. (I won’t buy it if I don’t have money.)
Si no fueras tan mentiroso, seríamos amigos. (If you weren’t such a liar, we would be friends.)
Habrían podido ir de vacaciones si María no hubiera tenido que trabajar. (They would’ve been able to go on holiday if María hadn’t had to work.)
Notice how sentences starting with si no have a comma (just like in English with “if not”), while sentences where si no is in the second half of it don’t.
Separating si and no
Also, watch out for sentences like the fourth one, where the subject after si isn’t omitted. In these cases, si no gets separated, and the subject is inserted between them:
Si tú no lo quieres, dámelo. (If you don’t want it, give it to me.)
No iremos a la playa si Franco no hace sus deberes. (We won’t go to the beach if Franco doesn’t do his homework.)
Si Juan no estuviera tan cansado, iríamos al cine. (If Juan weren’t so tired, we would go to the cinema.)
Habrían pedido otro café si el niño no se hubiera puesto a llorar. (They would’ve ordered another coffee if the kid hadn’t started to cry.)
Saying “and if not…” and “or else…”
Finally, si no can also be used just like the English phrase “if not,” without any verb attached. In these cases, both “if not” and si no tend to be preceded by a comma or a period and followed by a comma:
Asegúrate de que has cerrado la puerta, y si no, ciérrala. (Make sure you’ve closed the door, and if not, close it.)
However, you can repeat the verb after si no or “if not” if you wish:
Si hace calor, iremos a la playa, y si no, iremos al cine. (If it’s hot, we’ll go to the beach, and if not, we’ll go to the cinema.)
Si hace calor, iremos a la playa, y si no, al cine. (If it’s hot, we’ll go to the beach, and if not, [we’ll go] to the cinema.)
On the other hand, you can use o si no to mean “or else.” Just like y si no, this phrase should be preceded and followed by a comma or a period:
Tengo que terminar mi tarea, o si no, no podré ir a la fiesta. (I have to finish my homework, or else I won’t be able to go to the party.)
With me so far? Great! If you need a little extra review, my suggestion is to check out some songs that feature si no. Lyrics can be a great way to remember and internalize Spanish grammar. In this case, you might start with the popular song “Si no te quisiera” (“If I Didn’t Love You”) by Juan Magán.
Sino: Translation and Correct Usage
Use sino to mean “but rather, but instead”
Sino is an adversative conjunction that’s used in order to contrast two things.
Even though it contains the same letters as si no and in the exact same order, it’s actually a single word, and it should always be written as such.
Most Spanish grammar books and teachers translate it as “but,” but this isn’t the best translation. Why not?
Mainly because we have another word for “but” ( pero ), and if you’re like some of my students, you’ll think sino and pero are interchangeable. This will lead to a ton of errors.
That’s why I prefer to translate sino as “but rather” or “but instead.”
The difference between sino and pero
Let’s have a look at sino first before explaining how to distinguish it from pero:
No he comprado el vestido verde, sino el rojo. (I haven’t bought the green dress, but the red one [instead].)
No ha ido Juan, sino Pedro. (It wasn’t Juan who went, but Pedro [instead].)
No queremos café, sino té. (We don’t want coffee, but tea [instead].)
I’ve added the word “instead” so that you see what I mean when I say I like to translate sino as “but rather/but instead.” You only use “but” in English in these sentences, but in Spanish you have to know how to distinguish sino from pero.
Have a look at some sentences with pero in Spanish to get a sense of the difference:
Estaba lloviendo, pero fuimos a la playa. (It was raining, but we went to the beach.)
Tenía hambre, pero no había comida. (I was hungry, but there was no food.)
No hacía frío, pero cerré la ventana. (It wasn’t cold, but I closed the window.)
Deciding when to use sino and when to use pero
How can you learn when to use sino versus pero, then?
I always use two little tricks with my students. The first one is substitution.
We can substitute sino and pero for other words and see if the sentence still makes sense in English.
Pero indicates an exception most of the time. Something happens, but there’s an exception to the rule, or we do something despite the world telling us to do otherwise. Because of this, we can substitute pero with “except,” “even though,” “however” or “despite.” For example:
No me gusta el pescado, pero amo comer carne. (I don’t like fish, but I love eating meat — I don’t like fish. However, I love eating meat.)
Los quiero todos, pero no quiero el negro. (I want them all, but I don’t want the black one — I want them all except the black one.)
Hacía frío, pero fuimos a la playa. (It was cold, but we went to the beach — It was cold. Despite that, we went to the beach.)
On the other hand, sino doesn’t mean an exception, but rather, a preference. You don’t want A, but you want B instead. You don’t like A, but you like B instead. It’s always a matter of choices and preferences, which is why we can substitute sino with “rather” or “instead”:
No compramos la casa grande, sino la pequeña. (We didn’t buy the big house, but the small one — We didn’t buy the big house. We bought the small one instead.)
No tenía hambre, sino sed. (I wasn’t hungry, but thirsty — I wasn’t hungry, rather thirsty.)
The second trick I use is perhaps even easier: Take out the word sino or pero, and substitute it for a period. If the sentences you get are both grammatically correct and complete, the word you need is pero. If you get a complete sentence and an incomplete one, you need sino:
Tengo hambre. No hay comida. (I’m hungry. There is no food.)
Both are complete sentences, so they can be joined by pero:
Tengo hambre, pero no hay comida. (I’m hungry but there is no food.)
No quiero el pollo. La sopa. (I don’t want the chicken. The soup.)
Here we have a complete sentence (I don’t want the chicken) and a noun phrase (the soup). This indicates that we have to use sino:
No quiero el pollo, sino la sopa. (I don’t want the chicken, but the soup.)
If you’re still not completely clear on when to use sino and pero, there are tons of internet resources to help you out. You can practice with this quiz hosted by Woodward Spanish, or this one available through Quia.
El Sino: Translation and Correct Usage
El sino is actually the easiest word of the three.
It’s the only noun among them, so it works in a completely different way.
Besides, since it means “fate” or “destiny,” it can easily be substituted for another noun, like destino (destiny):
Es nuestro sino. (It’s our fate.)
Es nuestro destino. (It’s our destiny.)
No era su sino ser millonario. (It wasn’t his fate to be a millionaire.)
No era su destino ser millonario. (It wasn’t his destiny to be a millionaire.)
It’s worth noting that this use of sino is not common in everyday Spanish, so you’ll mostly find it in literature and poetry these days, but knowing this advanced meaning will definitely impress your Spanish-speaking friends!
Practicing Sino vs Si No: 2 Helpful Strategies
Practice through immersion
As with most aspects of the Spanish language, one of the most effective ways to learn is through immersion—after all, that’s the way we learned our native language!
Traveling or living abroad are the most obvious things that come to mind when imagining immersion, as every day is a language lesson. While this physical immersion is great, you can also create an immersive environment from the comfort of your own home, thanks to the internet.
The World Wide Web is brimming with resources that can show you how si no, sino and other aspects of the language are actually used by native speakers in everyday contexts.
The key here is to find authentic content that native Spanish speakers also consume. A quick Google search will find you plenty of Spanish podcasts to listen to and interesting books to read!
As for visually engaging native content, the streaming platform Netflix is great for popular Spanish TV shows and movies, while the video-based program FluentU specializes in language learning through authentic media clips like music videos and inspiring talks. The contextual video dictionary on this language learning platform can be used to search for the terms sino and si no and find videos where they are used in context by native speakers.
Practice through grammar exercises
You can also review the difference between sino and si no through grammar drills. These may not be as fun as immersive learning, but they’re definitely effective!
Sit down and write a few sentences each containing sino and si no. After you’re done, you can run them by a teacher or language exchange partner to see if you’ve gotten them right.
As a bonus, here’s a quick grammar drill to get you started. All you have to do is choose between si no and sino and fill in the blanks. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ve learned while reading this post!
No quiero el coche, _______ la moto. (I don’t want the car, but the motorcycle.)
No iremos al parque _______ terminas tus tamales. (We won’t go to the park if you don’t finish your tamales.)
No es nuestro _______ convertirnos en estrellas de cine. (It’s not our fate to become movie stars.)
You can find the correct answers at the end of the post.
See? That wasn’t difficult at all!
If you bear in mind the difference between a conditional, a conjunction and a noun, you won’t have any problem with these words.
Besides, if you remember how to use them correctly, you’ll be one step ahead of many native Spanish speakers.
Stay curious, and as always, happy learning!
(Solutions to the above fill-in-the-blank sentences, in order: sino, si no, sino. How did you do?)