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Depuis vs Il y a

French temporal expressions

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The French temporal expressions depuis and il y a have distinctly different meanings and uses, yet they often present difficulties for French students. Here is a detailed explanation and comparison of depuis and il y a to help you clearly understand the difference once and for all.

Depuis, meaning "for" or "since," can be used in the present or past in order to express an action that began in the past and continued to the temporal reference point used in the sentence: either the present or some point in the past. Depuis is thus used for actions that were incomplete at the referenced time, and can refer to two different kinds of time:

1) When followed by a period of time, depuis indicates the duration of an action and is equivalent to "have been + -ing (perfect progressive) + for"*

   Nous attendons depuis une heure.
   We've been waiting for an hour.

   Il parle depuis 5 minutes.
   He's been speaking for 5 minutes.

   Il travaillait depuis 10 jours quand je l'ai vu.
   He'd been working for 10 days when I saw him.


2) When followed by an event or point in time, depuis indicates the start time of an action and is translated in English by "have + -en/-ed (perfect tense) + since/for"

   Je suis malade depuis mon arrivée.
   I've been sick since I got here.

   Il était fâché depuis l'annonce, mais maintenant...
   He had been angry since the announcement, but now...

   Depuis hier, je suis déprimée.
   I've been depressed since yesterday.

   Il ne fume pas depuis un an.
   He hasn't smoked for a year.


Il y a means "ago" and can only be used for things that are already completed. The verb in the sentence must be in the past and il y a must be followed by some reference to time.**

   Je suis arrivée il y a une heure.
   I arrived an hour ago.

   Il a parlé il y a 5 minutes.
   He spoke 5 minutes ago.

   Il a travaillé il y a 10 jours.
   He worked 10 days ago.

   J'étais malade il y a une semaine.
   I was sick a week ago.

   Il y a deux jours, j'ai vu un chat noir.
   Two days ago, I saw a black cat.

   J'ai déménagé ici il y a longtemps.
   I moved here a long time ago.


*Il y a ... que, ça fait ... que , and voilà ... que are informal equivalents for the first use of depuis - they mean "have been doing for a certain amount of time."

   Il y a cinq ans que j'habite ici.
   I've been living here for five years.

   Ça fait deux heures que nous attendons.
   We've been waiting for two hours.

   Voilà six mois que je travaille avec Marc.
   I've been working with Marc for six months.


**Voilà can also replace il y a, informally.

   Il est parti voilà deux heures.
   He left two hours ago.

 
Summary
Ago Have -ed for/since    Have been -ing for   
Depuis vs Il y a il y a depuis depuis
Informal synonyms   voilà il y a que, ça fait que, voilà que
French verb tense past present or past present
Reference to time period of time    point in time period of time
Type of action completed continuing continuing
 
 
Test: depuis vs il y a
 
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