Introducing Afterthoughts and Offhand Remarks in Spanish

Phrases translate ‘by the way,’ ‘incidentally,’ and ‘anyway’

border fence between Mexico and the U.S.
Por cierto, la valla fronteriza fue construida por Estados Unidos. (By the way, the border fence was built by the United States.).

Brooke Binkowski / Creative Commons.

Not everything we say is important or even germane to what we're talking about. And sometimes, in Spanish as well as in English, we want to tell a listener or reader exactly that—that what we're saying is merely an afterthought, offhand remark, or something not particularly important.

Introducing Afterthoughts and Offhand Remarks in Spanish

Spanish has two ways of introducing remarks or comments that aren't directly related to what is being talked about, ways that are typically translated as "by the way" or "incidentally" in English. The expressions used, both of them adverbial phrases that affect the meaning of an entire sentence, are a propósito and por cierto.

A Propósito

A propósito is somewhat more formal than por cierto. Here are some examples of its usage:

  • A propósito, quiero hacer una fiesta este fin de semana. (By the way, I want to put together a party this weekend.)
  • La ciudad, a propósito, está a menos de 40 kilómetros de la frontera. (The city, by the way, is less than 40 kilometers from the border.)
  • A propósito, tenemos más de 40.000 alumnos. (Incidentally, we have more than 40,000 students.)
  • A propósito, ¿por qué Plutón no es planeta? (By the way, why isn't Pluto a planet?)

A propósito can be used in ways other than to introduce an afterthought. Since propósito as a noun means "intent" or "intention," a propósito can mean "intentionally" or "on purpose":

  • Determinaron que no fue a propósito. (They determined it was not done deliberately.)
  • Los oficiales de la liga analizaron el audio de la partida para decidir si habían perdido a propósito. (The league officials analyzed the audio of the match to decide if they had lost on purpose.)

Also, the phrase a propósito de also can be a way of saying "with respect to," "concerning," or something similar.

  • Recordé una historia que Mamá me contaba a propósito de mi padre. (I remembered a story Mom would tell me concerning my father.)
  • Quiero hablar con Elena a propósito del lanzamiento de su libro. (I want to talk with Elena about the launch of her book.)

Por Cierto

Although cierto usually has meanings such as "true" or "certainly," the phrase por cierto usually has much the same meaning as a propósito:

  • Por cierto, ¿no estás descargando música ilegalmente? (By the way, are you downloading music illegally?)
  • La valla fronteriza, por cierto, fue construida por Estados Unidos. (The border fence, incidentally, was built by the United States.)
  • Por cierto, vamos a preparar algo para septiembre. (By the way, we'll be getting something ready for September.)
  • Por cierto, la lente del teléfono está compuesta por cinco elementos. (Incidentally, the lens in the phone is made up of five elements.)

In some contexts, however, por cierto can mean "certainly" or something similar, often when affirming something that is a known truth.

  • Por cierto, es altamente improbable que yo sea normal. (Certainly, it is highly unlikely that I am normal.)
  • Por cierto, la Tierra no es plana. (Definitely, the Earth isn't flat.)

Downgrading and Minimizing

Closely related to the introduction of afterthoughts is that of minimizing or downplaying the importance of what follows. In English, this might be done using "anyway," such as in "Anyway, we found a restaurant that wasn't closed." Such minimizations are more common in speech than they are in writing.

In Spanish, common phrases of downplaying include "de todas formas," "de todas maneras" and "de todos modos." They can be translated in a variety of ways, as these examples show:

  • De todas formas, no me molesta que tengas muchos amigos. (In any case, it doesn't bother me that you have a lot of friends.)
  • De todas maneras los escándalos financieros generan un impacto reputacional. (Anyway, the financial scandals are having an impact on reputation.)
  • De todos modos, le gustaría volver a tener su propia casa. (In any event, she would like to return to her own home.)

All three of these Spanish phrases can be used interchangeably with no significant changes of meaning, much like the English phrases used above.

Especially in speech, it is also common to use words such as nada and/or bueno something like filler words for a similar effect:

  • Bueno nada, quiero compartir con ustedes mi tatuaje. (Anyway, I want to share my tattoo with you.)
  • Bueno, quizás podamos hacer una excepción. (OK then, maybe we can make an exception.)

Key Takeaways

  • A propósito and por cierto are common ways of expressing concepts such as "incidentally" and "by the way."
  • Both a propósito and por cierto also have meanings unrelated to introducing casual remarks.
  • De todas formas, de todas maneras, and de todos modos are ways of de-emphasizing the thought that follows.