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Example:

La chancelière allemande Angela Merkel a fait une déclaration il y a une semaine en disant « J’ai demandé à M Guttenberg de devenir ministre de la Défense, je ne lui ai pas demandé d’être assistant en sciences ou docteur. »

The online dictionary I consulted states that this expression can actually be translated into English as a week ago. Is that an accurate translation of this expression?

I'm asking this because I thought that the phrase il y a quelque chose always meant there is something or there are something. I didn't know that it had this special meaning. Could you give me some more usage examples when il y a is used to talk about things that happened in the past some specified period of time ago?

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    Yup, il y a + X amount of time = X amount of time ago. Many resources do exist to explain this. – Luke Sawczak Nov 24 '17 at 18:21
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    The general grammar is different from english here. Answers already did a good job explainning it. I'll just add it's the same general idea as the difference between "I'm 20 years old" (correct english) and "I have 20 years old" (translated brack from french) – Karlyr Nov 24 '17 at 20:43
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This is a correct translation, il y a + a period of time is a very common and standard phrasing. You can use it with any other period of time: il y a cinq minutes, il y a deux ans, il y a un mois, il y a cinq millions d'années, il y a cinq siècles, etc. You can also use with less specific spans of time: il y a quelque temps, il y a un bout de temps mean some time ago, or il n'y a pas longtemps means not long ago. Il y a peu is a bit more formal, and is an idiom for a short time ago.

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    Such a thorough answer! Upvoting it ^^ I would add that "il y a un bout de temps" is slightly informal. =) – Pwassonne Nov 24 '17 at 20:48
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a week ago is the perfect translation for this locution. but your others translations for il y a quelque chose are also correct.

Literally, il y a means there is or there are (the difference between singular/plural comes from the following indefinite article / number / indefinite adjective or pronoun (the three forms exists and have the same meaning there is a quantity of something), in that case il y a un problème for singular and il y a des problèmes for plural

However, the definition of the locution change when the sentence is a matter of time. Talking about time, il y a refers to a past time period, specified by the following : il y a une semaine is a week ago because it's exactly a period in the past a week far from now

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