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I understand how to use these four expressions:

  • Depuis
  • Depuis que
  • Il y a — in the temporal sense
  • Il y a … que

I also understand the grammatical implications, but I do not understand the semantic differences between the four, and mainly between using depuis and il y a.

My Question:

What is the semantic difference between these expressions? If examples could be given for the sake of providing context, semantic explanation, and perhaps even a general usage guideline (i.e. what type of practical situation warrants the use of one versus another), I would find this to be the most useful.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Il y a and depuis have different meanings. Depuis refers to a situation that has been true since a certain time in the past (past continuous), whereas il y a refers to a specific time in the past (past perfect). There is a similar distinction in English: depuis = since, il y a = ago.

Depuis une semaine, il n'a pas neigé. It hasn't snowed for a week.
Depuis une semaine, il neige. It has been snowing for a week.
Il y a une semaine, il a neigé. It snowed a week ago.

When depuis is followed by a time interval, it can be combined with il y a (“depuis il y a une semaine”), but il y a is frequently omitted.

Depuis can also be followed by an event (“depuis son départ”, “depuis qu'il est parti”). Il y a can only be followed by an interval, some other preposition must be used to refer to an event (“lors de son départ”, “lorsqu'il est parti”).

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Sans oublier le piège qu'affectionnait particulièrement mon prof d'anglais au lycée: il y a longtemps que je t'aime – mouviciel Jul 19 '13 at 5:32

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