Idioms are sayings where the real meaning and the literal meaning don’t match up.
In English, for example, we have phrases like “raining cats and dogs” and “break a leg.” Nobody thinks these mean that animals are falling from the sky or that we wish somebody harm.
Spanish also has plenty of idioms. One such phrase is “ponte las pilas.”
What does “ponte las pilas” mean in Spanish?
The literal meaning of “ponte las pilas” is “put batteries in” or “put on the batteries.” You may also see the similar phrase “se pone las pilas,” meaning “he or she puts batteries in.” The actual meaning of these phrases has nothing to do with batteries. Rather, they are both expressions encouraging people to work harder, do their best or pay more attention to something. You might think of it like the English phrases “get it together” and “you can do this” wrapped into one.
The parts of “ponte las pilas”
Spanish and English are both subject verb object languages, so the structure of this idiom is easy to understand.
“Ponte” is the imperative form of the verb poner (put), meaning it’s used to give commands. In other words, when you say “ponte” you’re telling someone to put something somewhere.
Next, the word “las” is the definite article, like the word “the” in English. It’s both feminine and plural, because the word that follows it is a feminine noun and in plural form.
That word is “pilas,” the plural form of the Spanish word for battery (pila). As noted, Spanish has feminine and masculine nouns, and this one is feminine.
How to use “ponte las pilas”
Of course, you could use this phrase to tell someone a T.V. remote is out of batteries and they need to put some in it. However, since this expression is idiomatic that isn’t the main way it’s used.
Instead, “ponte las pilas” is a phrase that uses batteries metaphorically to talk about somebody’s energy level. English equivalents might include “hang in there,” “don’t give up,” “you can do it” or other encouraging phrases.
However, “ponte las pilas” can also be used to tell somebody they need to pay more attention to something or work harder.
In the second example, it’s important to realize that the Spanish is much more nuanced than the English translation, as the phrase also still encourages the first speaker to try harder.
The phrase “se pone las pilas”
This idiom can also be used to talk about somebody, in the form “se pone las pilas.”
Se is a specific type of pronoun called a reflexive pronoun, meaning it’s used when a verb refers to the person doing the action. The English equivalent is “myself” or “herself.”
Se is the third-person reflexive pronoun, so it stands in for “he,” “she” or any other pronoun used to refer to somebody other than “me” and “you.”
The other difference here is that “ponte,” the imperative form of “to put,” has become “pone,” which is just the present tense.
Literally, then, this version of the phrase means “she puts in the batteries” or “he puts in the batteries.”
In usage, it’s similar to what “ponte las pilas” means in Spanish, only instead of a command it’s talking about somebody else picking themselves up, working harder or paying more attention to something.
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