An extremely common problem amongst people learning a new language is smoothness, that ability to keep talking without herky-jerky stop-and-starts in their sentences (lots of awkward silences and “ummms” while they try to think of the right word), and a specific area of this that’s almost never addressed anywhere that I’ve noticed a lot of people have trouble with, that I had trouble with, is how exactly to start a sentence or statement. We’ve got all these little filler words and phrases in English that we use over and over again that work great for this stuff, and we don’t realize that we do, they really are the grease that allows the gears to work–without it things grind, hang up, jerk back and forth, and sometimes just break down. This stuff is immensely useful and valuable to know if you actually want to be able to talk to people, but almost no one teaches it because it just doesn’t occur to them to do so (plus, it’s not “proper” formal Spanish, so textbooks shy away from it).
Let’s go over a list of the most common and useful starters and filler words, commonly known in Spanish as “muletillas”:
Bueno can be very accurately translated to the English word “well” in the context of “Well…”, not “well” as in “feeling well” in this case. It’s used in almost exactly the same way in many of the same circumstances, and is probably the most common sentence-starter in Spanish–you will very, very frequently hear sentences start with “Bueno, …”. Examples to give you an idea:
“Bueno, no es lo que queria decir.” = “Well, that’s not what I meant to say.”
“Bueno, tengo que ir.” = “Well, I have to go.”
It very frequently is used to indicate the transition from one thing to another, such as indicating that you’re going to leave now or that it’s time to get down to business: the transition from introductions and niceties to actual business at a meeting may be indicated with a simple, single “Bueno…” just as we would do the same with a single “Well…”
Also means “Look” or “Look here”, but it’s used much more narrowly than “fíjate que” in that “mira” is almost always used to set the record straight. You would likely here it used in the context of some sort of argument or confrontation, as in “Look here, if you don’t clean that up I’m going to run over you with my cheese car!”, which would be “¡Mira, si no limpias eso voy a atropellarte con mi carro de queso!”, or “Look, I didn’t say you couldn’t touch my cheese car, just don’t eat it, ok?” which would be “Mira, no te estaba diciendo que no podías tocar mi carro de queso, solo que no lo comieras, ¿ok?”
Haz De Cuenta Que
This phrase means something like “Imagine that…”, “Pretend that…”, or “Make believe that…” and is used whenever you would want to say one of those phrases in English–don’t use “pretender” or “imaginar“, neither are appropriate really: “pretender” means something more like “to aspire to” and “imaginar” is used like “imagine” in the sense of “I thought” or “I suppose” e.g. “I imagine you’re quite busy” or “I thought you’d have already heard about it.”
If you wanted to say anything along the lines of “Make believe that you are a car made of cheese”, or “Pretend that you’re the mayor of Cheeseville, what would you do?”, you would use this phrase as such:
“Haz de cuenta que eres un carro de queso.”
“Haz de cuenta que eres el alcalde de Quesovilla, ¿qué harías?”
Edit: A couple native speakers have told me that they’ve also heard this phrase used to mean something like “remember that” or “keep in mind that”, etc. So that’s also a possible alternative meaning depending on the dialect.
Like “bueno”, but more informal. It frequently finds itself in places where an English speaker would say “Well”, “ummm”, “let’s see”, “errr…”, “Hang on, let me see here…”, etc. Examples:
“¿Quieres ver una película?” (“Do you want to see a movie?”) may be answered with something like: “Pueeesss…..no sé, ehh….sí.” (“Weeelllll….I dunno, ehh….sure.”)
In many places, Mexico in particular, “pues” will be shortened to “pos” or even just a hiss that kind of sounds like “pss”. In Spain it’s “pue” instead. Which one you should use should be determined, as always, by how the people around you are speaking.
La Verdad Es Que
“The truth is that…” or “The truth of the matter is that…”, but a more contextual translation that would give you a really good English equivalent would be “actually”, because they use it the same way we do that word and about as frequently (in other words: very). Many beginning learners will say “Actualmente…” when they want to say “Actually…” but that’s incorrect as you know, “actualmente” translates more to “currently” than “actually” and is used to express what’s currently going on right now.
“¿Estás bien?” (“Are you ok?”)
“Pues…la verdad es que no me siento bien.” (“Well…actually, I don’t feel well.”)
It literally and contextually means “then” and is used in a very similar way that we use that word. Normally it’s used to indicate that one event followed another, just as we use it (“Then I went to the store” = “Entonces fui a la tienda”), and it’s also used in a sort of “So what, then?” kind of way, sometimes used the same way we use “so”, as in:
“So, what happened next?” = “Entonces, ¿qué pasó después?”
“So…you’re not coming then?” = “Entonces…¿no vienes?” or “Pues…¿no vienes, entonces?”
“In other words…”, “That is to say…”, or “I mean…”
Interesting structure in this phrase, because you’ve got the subjunctive involved (click me if you need help with that) due to the fact that’s sort of a hypothetical (as in, it means something like “if one were to say it this way” or “one could say it this way”). “O” means “or” and “sea” is the 3rd person present subjunctive form of “ser“, which means “to be”. This is an extremely common verbal crutch that you’ll hear used quite frequently in the way we would use “like” or “you know”. Examples:
“El jefe no me ha hablado todavía, o sea de verdad no sé.” = “The boss hasn’t talked to me yet, so in other words I don’t really know.”
“[blah blah blah long explanation about something], o sea la verdad es que solo me gusta mucho la ropa interior feminina.” = “[blah blah blah long explanation about something], in other words I just really like women’s underwear.”
More literally means “that is to say” and can be used pretty much anywhere you would use “o sea”, except it’s considered a bit more correct and less slangy than “o sea” is.
“Luego” also technically translates to “then” and is frequently interchangeable with “entonces”, though “luego” is more often used to indicated something happening next in sequence, e.g. “…then I went to the store, then the airport, then home.” would be something like “…luego fui a la tienda, luego al aeropuerte, y luego a la casa.”
Sometimes it’s used when we would use “later”, as in the most common example of “Hasta luego” which means “See you later”. Other similar expressions include “Luego voy” (“I’ll go later”), “Luego te digo” (“I’ll tell you later”), “Luego lo hago” (“I’ll do it later”), etc.
Not “actually”, first of all. This is a false friend, it doesn’t mean what it looks like it does. “Actualmente” actually (see what I did there? 😀 ) means “currently”, “at the moment”, “these days”, or, as the dictionary defines it, “nowadays”. The best basic translation is probably “currently”. Examples:
“Qué pasa?” “Pues, actualmente no sé, creo que esperamos a que Juan llegue.” = “What’s happening?” “Well, currently I don’t know, I think we’re waiting for Juan to arrive.”
“Actualmente hace muy buen tiempo, pero podría llover más tarde.” = “Currently the weather is very nice, but it could rain later.”
A Propósito / Por Cierto
They both pretty much just mean “By the way”. Just as with “by the way”, they usually indicate a change in subject or a transition into some new sort of business. Just use them the same way you would “by the way”, e.g. “A propósito, ¿sabes dónde está María?” = “By the way, do you know where Maria is?” or “Por cierto, ¿no ibas a ir a la tienda?” = “By the way, weren’t you going to go to the store?”
Por Lo Menos
It means “At least”. “Por” means “for”, “lo” means “that” or “it”, and “menos” means “less” or “least” in this case, so you put them together and you get “that which is least”, or…”at least” 😉 Examples:
“¡Por lo menos pregúntale el nombre antes de que le quites la ropa, hombre!” = “At least get her name before you try to take her clothes off, man!”
“Finally” or “At last”.
Frequently said with exasperation that the thing in question is finally happening. Examples:
“¡Por fin! ¡Estás aqui!” = “Finally! You’re here!”
“Por fin, tenemos la tarea de todos.” = “At last, we’ve got everyone’s homework.”
This is the Spanish equivalent of “It’s that…” or “It’s such that…” or “The thing is that…”, all of which are roughly the same thing. This is one of the most common and most useful, all-purpose phrases in Spanish, and can be used for nearly anything–I guarantee you that if you ask a Spanish-speaking person “Why?” or “Why is ____ ?”, there’s a superb chance that their answer will begin with “Es que…”, meaning “Well, it’s that…” or even “Pues, es que…” (hey, don’t forget: you can mix-‘n-match all this stuff! 😀 )
“Es que” is always used to answer something, in response to something, it requires some sort of preceding question or statement to actually respond to.
This is pretty much exclusive to Argentina and just means something like “Hey!”, or “Hey buddy”, e.g.
“¡Che! Me gustan tus zapatos.” = “Hey, I like your shoes.”
“¡Che! ¿Qué tal, hombre?” = “Hey! What’s up, man?”
Lo Que Pasa Es Que
“What’s happening is that…” or “What’s going on is…”, that’s it. It can be used anytime “Es que…” can, which means pretty much any time.
Quizás / Tal Vez
They both just mean “maybe” or “perhaps”, that’s it, very simple. You’ll sometimes see it spelled “quizá” minus the “s” on the end. Examples:
“Quizás no debí haberme comido todas esas ardillas, creo que tengo una bola de pelos.” = “Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten all those squirrels, I think I have a hairball.”
“Tal vez El Presidente nos preste algunas de sus prostitutas si nos aburrimos.” = “Perhaps the President will let us borrow some of his prostitutes if we get bored.”
Literally, “It results that…” or “It results in…”, more accurately it means something like “It turns out that…”. If you wanted to say “Well, it turns out that the dog doesn’t like broccoli!” you would say that “¡Pues, resulta que al perro no le gusta el brócoli!”
You would also use this particular expression to mean “it works out that” in a mathematical context, such as saying “The price of the car works out to 20,000 pesos.” would be done as “Resulta que el precio del carro es veinte mil pesos.”
Just another way of saying “So” when used at the beginning of a sentence, such as “So, you think I’m fat?” would be “¿Así que crees que estoy gordo?”, or “So, you’re coming then?” would be “¿Así que vienes?”. The reason it’s used in this very specific manner is due to what it really means, “así” means “this way” or “like this” or “in this manner”, and “que”, of course, means “that”, so “así que” literally means something like “It’s going to be like this, then is it?” in reference to whatever follows that “Así que”–got it?
“Although”, “Even though”, etc. Examples:
“Aunque me dicen que estoy loco, aún voy a rezar al monstruo volador de espaguetti.” = “Even though they tell me I’m crazy, I’m still going to pray to the flying spaghetti monster.”
“Aunque hui del “Superbowl” como de la peste, aún tuve que oír personas quejándose sobre Christina Aguilera. Yo no estaba feliz.” = “Although I avoided the Superbowl like the plague, I still had to hear people complain about Christina Aguilera. I wasn’t happy.”
“Moreover”, “Besides…”, “Also”, etc.
This is occasionally also used where we would use “too”, e.g.
“Él es guapo y además inteligente.” = “He’s handsome and smart, too.”
“El queso es demasiado suave, demasiado débil, y además huele muy mal.” = “Cheese is too soft, too weak, and besides, it smells terrible.”
Ni Modo Que
“No way that…”, or “No way in hell that…”. “Modo” literally means “way” so this one is pretty intuitive. It’s never just used on its own like “No way!” is in English, something always follows it and that something will always involve the subjunctive (click me if you need help with that). Examples:
“¡Ni modo que vaya a hablar con ella!” = “Like hell I’m going to talk to her!”
“Ni modo que yo pueda ir contigo, lo siento” = “No way can I go with you, sorry.”
“Sin embargo” means “However”, “Nonetheless”, “Nevertheless”, “Notwithstanding”, etc.
Frequently used while someone is shaking their finger at you, haha. They’ll acknowledge your point, quite aware that they’re about to invalidate it, and then say “sin embargo” right before they do so. As such:
“Entiendo que el queso no es tan furte como el acero, pero sin embargo voy a hacer un carro con él.” = “I understand that cheese isn’t as strong as steel, but nevertheless I’m going to make a car out of it.”
“Admito que pagué por más o menos una docena de prostitutas con fondos del estado, ¡pero sin embargo aún creo que soy adecuado para ser El Presidente!” = “I acknowledge that I did pay for a dozen or so prostitutes with state funds, but nonetheless I still think I’m fit to be President!”
Menos Mal Que
“Good thing that…”, or “It’s just as well that…”. Fantastic little sentence-starter that you can get a ton of mileage out of. It literally means “Less bad that”, and is just they’re way of saying “It’s good that this thing happened.” Examples:
“Menos mal que no estacioné mi carro de cheese al sol, ¡se derretiría!” = “Good thing I didn’t park my cheese car in the sun, it would have melted!!”
“Menos mal que no olvidaste los ratones, ¡las serpientes tienen mucha hambre!” = “Good thing you didn’t forget the mice, the snakes are really hungry!”
“Look”, “Look here, …”, or “Look at that…”, etc. “Fijar” means “to fix” in the sense of to focus or fixate on something, not as in “to repair” (that’s “arreglar“), so “Fíjate”, as you can imagine, means something like “fix yourself” (as in, “focus yourself”, i.e. “pay attention”) and “que” means “that”, so “fíjate que” means something like “fixate yourself on that”, or “focus yourself on that” and best translates to what we might say as “Look, …” or “Look at that”. It’s just used to call someone’s attention to something.
An example would be if you wanted to say “Look, there’s a giant car made out of cheese!”, it would be “¡Fíjate, hay carro enorme hecho de queso!”
“Fíjate” without the “que” means “Watch out!”, “Look out!”, or “Pay attention, …”
Also, note that “Fijarse que + subjunctive” = “Make sure that…”, as in “Make sure that the oven is off.” (“Fíjate que esté apegado el horno.”). This is usually used the way that we would say “Check that…” instead of what most English-speakers will be inclined to use, “checar“–most Spanish speakers use “Fijarse que + subjunctive”, not “checar”.
Lo Bueno / Lo Malo
“The good thing…” / “The bad thing…”
“Lo” = “It” and when placed before another word it means “that which is ____”, e.g. “lo bueno” means “That which is good”, “lo malo” means “That which is bad”, and of course the more accurate contextual translation in English would be “The good/bad thing…”. This works with a ton of other words, such as:
“lo peor” = “the worst thing…”
“lo único” = “the only thing…”
“lo extraño” = “the strange thing…”
“lo gracioso” = “the funny thing…”
Such as in “¡Lo mas extraño es que El Ministerio de Transporte no me daba permiso que manejar mi carro de queso en las carreteras públicas!” = “The strange thing is that the Department of Transportation wouldn’t let me drive my cheese car on the public roads!”
“Let’s see…” or “Let’s see here…”
Fantastically useful little sentence-starter here. It’s frequently used to call attention to something, such as:
“¿Tienes un dólar?” “A ver…” = “Do you have a dollar?” “Let’s see…”
“A ver si mi paquete ya ha llegado…” = “Let’s see if my package has arrived yet…”
“A ver si mi carro de queso flota…” = “Let’s see if my cheese car floats…”
It will be frequently used with “si” or “qué” to mean “Let’s check and see…” or “Let’s check…”, as in:
“A ver qué hay en televisión…” = “Let’s see what’s on TV…”
“No wonder…” or “Little wonder that…”
“Razón” means “reason”, so with “con razón” you get “with reason”, e.g. “Con razón tu carro de queso se derretió, ¡lo dejaste al sol!” = “No wonder your cheese car melted, you left it in the sun!” or, using the literal translation (see if this makes sense to you now , it should), “With reason your cheese car melted, you left it in the sun!”
“Because” or “That’s why”.
It’s frequently used to explain or to help make things understood when it might not be clear what’s going on, e.g.
“Señor Andrew, ¡manejas un carro de queso!”, “Sí, por eso mis pantaloncillos están amarillos.” = “Señor Andrew, you drive a cheese car!”, “Yes, that’s why my pants are yellow.”
“Fíjate, hay un video musical de Shakira en la televisión.”, “Sí, por eso no puedo levantarme” = “Look, there’s a Shakira music video on TV.”, “Yes, that’s why I can’t stand up.” 😀
“Well, anyway…” or “So, anyhow…”
It literally means something like “In conclusion…” but isn’t always necessarily used to conclude something (though it frequently is, that is it’s often used to lead into the conclusion), sometimes it’s used to change subjects or bring the conversation back to what was originally being discussed. Examples:
“En fin, la verdad es que sobreviví sólo comiéndome mi carro de queso cuando quedé varado en el desierto.” = “So anyway, I actually did survive only by eating my cheese car when I was stranded in the desert.”
“So it turns out that…”
“Total” literally (and normally) means, simply, “total” as in “complete”, but when it’s put at the beginning of a sentence as a starter it basically means something like “So anyway, it turns out that…” and is frequently paired with “que” in the process of doing so e.g.:
“Pues, total que no me levanté a tiempo esta mañana.” = “Well, turns out that I didn’t wake up on time this morning.”
Not very common at all in this particular context in Latin America, but I’ve noticed (thanks to Ben and Marina’s FANTASTIC free podcasts that I highly recommend) that it’s used all the time in Spain, it’s their equivalent of our “ok” or “you know”, it’s a constantly used filler word there. You can use it like you would “ok”, you can use it like you would “well” (“vale” and “pues” are frequently interchangeable), you can use it like you sometimes would “ummm”! See below:
“¿Vale?” “Sí, vale.” = “Ok?” “Yeah, ok.”
“Pueesss, vale, vamos a ver lo que tenemos aquí…” = “Wellll, ok, let’s see what we’ve got here…”
“Creo que mi carro de queso no funciona muy bien, vale?” = “I think my cheese car didn’t work very well, you know?”
“Vale…ehhh…donde puse mi busto del culo de Shakira, es doscientos kilos de bronce, sé que está en algún lugar por aquí…” = “Ok…ehhh….where’d I put my bust of Shakira’s ass, it’s two hundred kilos of bronze, I know it’s around here somewhere…”
What a fantastic little word. It’s a bit difficult because if you use the literal translation of “ya”, which is “already”, every time you hear it, it won’t make sense, but you have to understand this word because you will hear it used ALL. THE. TIME…I mean constantly.
It can mean “already”, of course, it can also mean “now”, or if made negative it can mean “anymore” as in “not anymore”, e.g. “Ya no viene” = “He’s not coming anymore.” It’s often used simply as emphasis, usually to emphasize that something is being done, it’s being done now, or that something will be gotten to in just a second if the listener would just be patient and quit friggin’ bugging you about it. Examples:
“Ya voy.” = “I’m already going” / “I’ll go in a minute” / “I’m going!!!!” [in response to someone repeatedly insisting that you go] – which translation is correct depends on the context.
“Ya están las hamburguesas.” = “The hamburgers are ready/here now.”
“¡Ya estoy allí!” = “I’m already there!”
“La verdad es que ya quiero salir.” = “Actually, I already want to leave.” / “Actually, I want to leave now.”
To confuse you even further, when “ya” is combined with “que” it means something completely different: “Since…”, “Seeing that…”, “Seeing as how…”, etc. It’s used to mean something like “Well, since ___ has/is already occurred/occurring…”. Here, look at these and see if you get it:
“Ya que comiste mi carro de queso, ¡¿cómo vamos a ir a la casa?!” = “Since you’ve eaten my cheese car, how are we going to get home?!”
“Ya que compraste todo lo que necesitabamos, supongo que podemos ir a casa ahora.” = “Seeing as how you already bought everything we needed, I suppose we can go home now.”
A Quick Note Before We End…
I’ve got two posts that I’ve put up that I’m recommending everyone interested in learning Spanish go read if they haven’t already (if you have, ignore this, sorry): How to avoid wasting months learning Spanish the wrong way (basically this is my “how to get started right in learning Spanish” post for complete beginners) and The Telenovela Method where I cover how to use popular media like movies, music, and books to learn Spanish. Additionally you can check out the front page for a more complete list of my best and most popular posts.
First and foremost the wonderful Spanish speakers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking to over the years, whether that was in person or via Skype. Secondly, my own personal experience based on reading and listening to actual contemporary Spanish-language media (which I can’t recommend enough). Also, the guys over at HTLAL (if you’re not a member you should be), Joseph Keenan’s fantastic Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, and the Foro de Español forums.
Ok, well that’s it. If you’d like to delve into this even further there’s a list of muletillas (what this stuff is called in Spanish) over on Spanish Wikipedia organized by country, though it’s lacking definitions. If this interested you I can almost guarantee you you’ll be interested in two other similar posts I’ve done:
Edit (12/9/2011): Thanks to a commenter below, I can highly recommend this very extensive article (be warned: it’s entirely in Spanish) on muletillas, definitely worth checking out. Thanks, Mijail999.
I await your corrections and questions in the comments (and I do appreciate them, by the way).
Edit (7/15/2013): Many thanks to Jared Romey at Speaking Latino and his wife, Diana, for pointing out several grammatical errors in this article and then being kind enough to put together a whole word document outlining them and how to fix them for me! Fantastic! Additionally, Nélida Kreer at Traducciones-Montevideo was the one who originally caught the errors and mentioned it to Jared.