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AlwaysSpanish is Retiring!

After a long awkward silence, here's something to break the ice – all over again. I can totally see why you should be upset to see no action from the Burro for over a month now, but trust me, your wait was all worth it. The news here is that your beloved Burro has just moved into a brand new home – one that's a whole lot richer, swankier, and easier to live in. I'm talking about PeppyBurro. That's the name of the new website! Isn't that cool? At least it tells you all about the Burro's pepped up temperament right off the bat, right? This post is not about Spanish-learning tricks (although I will drop in a couple out of habit, I guess) or grammar lessons. This one's all about our new home!

The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Always Spanish has retired. Please visit the new blog at for all future articles.

So Many Ways “To Pull” In Spanish!

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Languages don’t always work in predictable ways. They have rules and they break their own rules. They have more than one word for the same thing and the same word for more than one thing. This makes them frustratingly complex and it is this complexity that makes them beautiful. This complexity is the very hallmark of an organic language setting them apart from the likes of Klingon and Dothraki. One such fun aspect of Spanish is its translation for the English verb “to pull.” If you’ve just started out with the language, it’s a no-brainer: halar. But there’s more than meets the eye. Turns out, Mexicans and their neighbors don’t even like the word!

Introducing Tirar

Think of tirar as throwing the door open
Think of tirar as throwing the door open
Photo credit: Palabras por Madrid
Tirar means to throw and it should be one of the easier Spanish words to remember given the similarity in pronunciations. The similarity comes from the fact that both throw and tirar derive from a common Latin ancestor. If this etymology doesn’t help, try some imagination: Think about the recently-concluded Miss Universe fiasco where the girl from Colombia almost won before losing the title to her Philippine friend. Must have been the most embarrassing moment of her life, right? Well, you can add to it with a little imagination. Now picture her throwing her tiara on the floor in frustration before storming out of the venue. Jeez, girl, be a sport! Now before you fire up Facebook to add this spice to the grapevine, picture the situation once again. Throwing the tiara should be good enough a link to help you remember tirar.

By the way, why are we discussing tirar again? Weren’t we going to talk about pull instead of throw? Well, the thing is, tirar also means to pull and is actually the most standard option available. This is what the Spaniards prefer anyway, which is why you’ll see tirar on doors out there. Some Latin Americans also prefer tirar over halar in formal settings. But if a Latin American store uses this verb on its door, it’s not as tirar. Instead, you’ll see tire, its imperative conjugation.

Also remember that when used for pull, tirar is always intransitive, i.e. it doesn’t take an object. In other words, you can’t specify what you’re pulling when you use tirar for pull. However, if you must, there’s a hack: Just add a de. See the following example:

El burro tiraba de la carreta.

The donkey pulled the cart.

Without the de, you wouldn’t be able to tell what the donkey was pulling. Speaking of tirar de, it can also translate into draw (as in, draw a knife, etc.) or shoot. The analogy between drawing and pulling and between drawing and shooting shouldn’t be hard to see.


Imagine pulling this door that opens a large hall
Imagine pulling this door that opens a large hall
Photo credit: Ernesto Guerra
This is the most accurate word for the job. While tirar primarily means to throw, to pull being only a secondary translation, halar primarily means to pull. And just to reinforce, you don’t pronounce the h- in halar because Spanish doesn’t like that letter. I’m sure you knew this already but got to be sure. In fact, despite the reputation tirar enjoys for being the standard, you should still be careful where you use it. At least in Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Canary Islands. Because there, the verb is slang for having sex! Needless to say, vulgar always trumps standard when it comes down to choosing whether or not to use a word. Most of the time, the context should make it clear what you mean but why run the risk when safer alternatives already exist?

In most of Latin America, halar is your friend. While, like most other verbs halar can also have multiple meanings, to pull is the default. Now, Latin America is big. So it pays to be a tad more specific because not all Latin Americans use this verb. Just remember that halar is understood all over Latin America but only used in parts of it. The Río de la Plata region, i.e. Argentina and Uruguay, tirar de still ejnoys better currency than halar and stores out there say tire on their doors indicating you ought to pull to open them. And that’s despite the otherwise vulgar connotations of tirar in the countries north of Panama.

Memorizing halar is way easier than it feels thanks to its history. The verb derives from French haler, the same source that gives us the English word haul. To haul and to pull are not that different if you think about it, now are they? If history bores you, try some visualization. Imagine a door that opens into a large hall; of course, you have to pull it to open it. This large hall will help you remember halar. See what a little imagination can do for you?


Push if you want but the door is mighty stubborn!
Push if you want but the door is mighty stubborn!
Photo credit: Burger King
This is the variant of halar that enjoys currency in quite a few Latin American countries, notably Mexico. Now don’t ask me why and how halar became jalar but it did. I am pretty sure the transformation started first in pronunciation and only later cascaded into spelling. At some point in time, somebody in Mexico would have started pronouncing the h- in halar and made it a deeper throaty sound. Because anything different tends to catch on easily, jalar would have become an instant success. Okay that sounded pretty lame, I admit. But here’s a more convincing theory. If you hear people from Andalusia in Spain, you’ll notice that they pronounce their h, perhaps the only dialect of Spanish that allows this. I reckon this has something to do with the dominance of guttural sounds in Arabic which would have been brought into Andalusia by the Moors. I am pretty sure the jalar variant was brought over to the New World by Spanish-speaking pioneers from Andalusia Another example of this theory in work is the derivation of juerga from huelga.

Phew! So much history lesson for something this trivial. Who cares who turned halar into jalar? All you need to remember is that the throaty version, i.e. jalar, is the preferred term in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, and most of Latin America except Uruguay and Argentina.

Jalar is also preferred by folks in Canary Islands as the old-fashioned alternative to tirar. This usage is also common in south and central Spain. Some parents would correct their kids when they use jalar saying it’s the incorrect version of halar. Purists often see the word in this light. On the other hand, if you use halar in a country like Peru or Mexico where they prefer jalar, you’ll quickly be seen as a snob trying to sound sophisticated!

In countries that prefer this variant, you’ll see jale on the doors instead of hale unless someplace that prefers to sound more formal and uses tire. One curious practice in Colombia is that many people prefer halar when writing but jalar when speaking. Now sure if it’s all over Colombia or just some regions. Also, not sure if any other part of the world follows this practice. Nevertheless, Colombia is perhaps the only jalar-leaning country where you can say halar and not sound pretentious.

Jalar is a rich word and can have a whole range of meanings other than to pull. All of these connotations are worth learning if you have the patience. For example, in Mexico, the word can also be used colloquially to mean to function properly. Some Mexicans also use it to mean to exaggerate or to date. The word is not entirely alien to Spain either where it means to eat. In Mexico again, jalar can sometimes mean to give someone a ride whereas in many parts of Latin America, it can mean to work hard, to fail, to get drunk, to perform, to leave, and even to masturbate! Tell me how you don’t find this verb interesting. Remembering this word is as easy as remembering to pronounce halar with a non-silent h-.

This is all you need to know about this simple-looking verb. And just for the sake of completion, to push is empujar in Spanish. Do you know of any variant to this one like halar has? Do share it with us lesser mortals now!

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