"Ya" Is Way Less Confusing Than You Think – Spanish Pro Tip

October 31, 2016
<p>The reason why you often see more <span class="sp">ya's</span> in a Spanish dialogue than tears in a hot sauce convention is that <span class="sp">ya</span> is an incredibly expressive word.</p><p>In most classrooms, it is usually translated as <span class="en">already</span>; but out there in the wild, it has a bunch of other interesting meanings:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¡No, por favor! Esa peli <strong>ya</strong> la vi en el cine y todavía estoy esperando a que me devuelvan esas dos horas de mi vida.</span><br><span class="en">"No, please. That movie, I <strong>already</strong> saw it in the (movie theatre) and I am still waiting (so that) they give me back those two hours of my life."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Ya</strong> verás como la segunda vez te gusta más.</span><br><span class="en">"<strong>(At some future time</strong>) you will see how the second time (you watch it) it pleases you more."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Mira, la semana pasada me recomendaste <em>Transformers</em> y casi me suicido, así que <strong>ya</strong> no cuela.</span><br><span class="en">"Look, (the) last week you recommended Transformers (to me) and I almost (suicide / kill) myself, so (it doesn't go through the strainer / I don't believe you) <strong>now</strong>/<strong>anymore</strong>"</span></p></div><p><span class="en">Already</span>, <span class="en">at some future time</span>, <span class="en">now/anymore</span>. What's the deal?</p><!--more--><h2>Words don't make sense unless you understand their context</h2><p>Before we start discussing <span class="sp">ya's</span> private life, let's talk about <strong>context</strong>. Words don't exist in isolation—they live in sentences.</p><p>Sentences behave differently when they contain <strong>one</strong> verb or <strong>multiple verbs</strong>, or when the verb is in the <strong>past</strong>, in the <strong>present</strong> or in the <strong>future</strong> tense. Subject, intonation, word order: all these variables play together to determine the meaning of each sentence. The sooner you learn to <strong>notice these things</strong>, the more sense Spanish will make.</p><p>Look at the three sentences above, and see if you can notice <strong>differences in their contexts</strong>.</p><h2>The secret to understanding <span class="sp">ya</span> is in the verb tense</h2><p>The verb in <span class="sp">Esta peli la <strong>vi</strong> en el cine</span> is in the <strong>past</strong>, the verb in <span class="sp"><strong>Verás</strong> como te gusta más</span> is in the <strong>future</strong>, and the verb in <span class="sp">Lo que has dicho no <strong>cuela</strong></span> is in the <strong>present</strong>.</p><p>The reason why <span class="sp">ya</span> can be confusing is that it's sometimes translated as <span class="en">already</span>, others as <span class="en">now</span> or <span class="en">yet</span>, and often it's not translated at all.</p><p>The key to avoiding the confusion is to realize that these are just different applications of the same principle:</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p><span class="sp">Ya</span> is used to emphasize that a change from "<strong>not happened</strong>" to "<strong>happened</strong>" took place at <strong>a given time</strong>.</p></blockquote><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Esta peli <strong>ya</strong> la vi en el cine.</span><br><span class="en">There was a time in the past when I hadn't yet seen this movie, but <strong>at some point later</strong> I saw it (I <strong>already</strong> saw it).</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Ya</strong> verás como te gusta.</span><br><span class="en">You don't like it now, but I promise that <strong>at some future time</strong> you will.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Lo que has dicho <strong>ya</strong> no cuela.</span><br><span class="en">In the past, I would have believed you, but <strong>now</strong> I don't.</span></p></div><p>Since <span class="sp">ya</span> is only used to emphasize, you could omit it and still get your point across, but you'd be missing out on spoonfuls of Spanish flavor.</p><p>If you want to get out of Spanish Intermediate Purgatory, <strong>you have to get comfortable with <span class="sp">ya</span></strong>.</p><p>Okay. If <span class="sp">ya</span> were Barcelona, we just visited the <span class="sp">Sagrada Familia</span>. It's time to check out some of the less touristy neighborhoods.</p><h2><span class="sp">Ya</span> vs. <span class="sp">Todavía</span></h2><p>One of the major confusion black holes around <span class="sp">ya</span> is its relationship with <span class="sp">todavía</span>, because they're both often translated as <span class="en">yet</span>, <span class="en">still</span>, <span class="en">no longer</span>, <span class="en">already</span> or <span class="en">anymore</span>.</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>If you want to emphasize that there was <strong>no change</strong>, use <span class="sp">todavía</span>.</p></blockquote><p>For example, in the first sentence above, we said <span class="sp"><strong>todavía</strong> estoy esperando</span> because the change from "waiting" to "not waiting" didn't take place.</p><p>It's easy to get a bit confused when adding <strong>negation</strong>, but the rules are the same:</p><ul><li>Affirmative <strong>change</strong>, use <span class="sp">ya</span></li><li>Affirmative <strong>no-change</strong>, use <span class="sp">todavía</span></li><li>Negative <strong>change</strong>, use <span class="sp">ya no</span></li><li>Negative <strong>no-change</strong>, use <span class="sp">todavía no</span></li></ul><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Esta peli <strong>ya</strong> la vi en el cine.</span><br><span class="en">Affirmative change: I hadn't seen it before, I saw it some time after.</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Todavía</strong> estoy esperando a que me devuelvan esas dos horas de mi vida.</span><br><span class="en">Affirmative no-change: I was waiting before, I'm still waiting.</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Ya no</strong> estoy esperando a que me devuelvan esas dos horas de mi vida.</span><br><span class="en">Negative change: I was waiting before, I'm no longer waiting. (Either somebody invented a time machine and I got my hours back, or I just lost hope.)</span></p><p><span class="sp">Esta peli <strong>todavía no</strong> la he visto en el cine.</span><br><span class="en">Negative no-change: I hadn't seen it before, I still haven't seen it.</span></p></div><h2>Omitting words after <span class="sp">ya</span></h2><p>JLo can look like a typo unless you know that <em>Jennifer Lopez</em> is a thing. Likewise, <span class="sp">ya</span> by itself makes no sense until you figure out what words should come after it:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><strong>Ya</strong> (te entiendo), pero págame lo que me debes.</span><br><span class="en">(I understand you <strong>now</strong> / right), but pay me what you owe me.</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Ya</strong> (lo sé), pero ahora no necesito tu ayuda.</span><br><span class="en">(I know it <strong>now</strong> / sure), but now I don't need your help.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Hacemos el ejercicio, lo corregimos, y <strong>ya</strong> (hemos terminado).</span><br><span class="en">We (will) do the exercise, we (will) correct it, and (<strong>then</strong> we're done / that's it).</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Ya</strong> estoy (listo). ¿Nos vamos?</span><br><span class="en">I am ready <strong>now</strong>. (Shall) we go?</span></p></div><p>If you come across a sentence where <span class="sp">ya</span> doesn't seem to make sense, 90% of the time it's just missing a few words after it.</p><h2><span class="sp">Ya</span> vs. <span class="sp">Ahora</span></h2><p>When the context of a sentence is the present, <span class="sp">ya</span> plays a similar role to <span class="sp">ahora</span> (<span class="en">now</span>), with a subtle difference between them:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¡Nacho, ve a recoger tu cuarto!</span><br><span class="en">"Nacho, go to clean up your room!"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡Ahora voy!</span><br><span class="en">"I'm going now!"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—No, ahora no. ¡<strong>Ya</strong>!</span><br><span class="en">"No, not now. <strong><em>Right now</em></strong>!"</span></p></div><p>My mom knew perfectly well that <span class="sp">ya</span> is a much stronger indication of immediacy than <span class="sp">ahora</span>.</p><h2><span class="sp">Ya que</span> and other <span class="sp">ya</span> expressions</h2><p>Let's finish our tour of <span class="sp">Ya</span> City by noticing three more landmarks that are <strong>not directly related</strong> to the usages we saw above. They're not particularly difficult to internalize, you just have to know they exist.</p><h3><span class="sp">Ya que</span></h3><p>An excellent way to show off your native chops is to use <span class="sp">ya que</span> to mean <span class="en">since</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Voy a ver si ya está (lista) la comida.</span><br><span class="en">"I'm going to see if the food is ready (<span class="sp"><em>ya</em></span> indicates a change from 'not ready' to 'ready')"</span></p><p><span class="sp">–<strong>Ya que</strong> vas a la cocina, ¿me puedes traer una cerveza?</span><br><span class="en">"<strong>Since</strong> you're going to the kitchen (anyway), can you bring me a beer?"</span></p></div><p><strong>Use <span class="sp">ya que</span> more often</strong>. Seriously. It sounds great, it's not that hard, and you might get a free beer from your friend.</p><h3>Disbelief <span class="sp">ya</span></h3><p>This usage comes pretty handy when you want to convey disbelief or mild disapproval:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Te juro que ese de ahí es Ricky Martin.</span><br><span class="en">"I swear to you that that (guy) (of there / over there) is Ricky Martin."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡<strong>Anda ya</strong>!</span><br><span class="en">"(Yeah, sure)!"</span></p></div><p>If your friend insists that it's Ricky, and you don't want to repeat yourself, <span class="sp">¡venga ya!</span> works just as well.</p><h3>Agreement <span class="sp">ya</span></h3><p>If your friend finally manages to say something credible, here's how you can agree:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—La verdad es que tu coche está bastante bien.</span><br><span class="en">"The truth is that your car is pretty nice."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Ya te digo</strong>. Es un cochazo.</span><br><span class="en">"(I'm telling you / Hell yeah). It's a (super car / sweet ride)."</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">Ya ves</span> (<span class="en">You see / You got that right</span>) is another common expression that means the same thing.</p><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>There is a beautiful unifying principle that solves most of the confusion around <span class="sp">ya</span>: <strong><span class="sp">ya</span> is used to highlight a change of state taking place at some point in the past, present, or future</strong>.</p><p>Depending on the <strong>tense of the verb</strong>, this change may have already happened in the past, it may have just happened now, or it may be believed to happen in the future.</p><p>If the change goes from "<strong>not happening</strong>" to "<strong>happening</strong>", we use <span class="sp"><strong>ya</strong></span>; if it's the <strong>opposite direction</strong>, we use <span class="sp"><strong>ya no</strong></span>. The same applies when there's a <strong>lack of change</strong>, except that we use <span class="sp"><strong>todavía</strong></span>.</p><p>Once you stop seeing Spanish words as direct translations from English (<span class="sp">ya</span> = <span class="en">already</span>) and start <strong>noticing their context clues</strong>, learning how to use <span class="sp">ya</span> (and Spanish in general) will make much more sense.</p><p>Learning all these usages at a conceptual level is fun, but reading this article is only <a href="https://deliberatespanish.com/blog/intermediate-purgatory">low-intensity practice</a>, <strong>unless you actually internalize them</strong>.</p><p>Make a list of <span class="sp">ya</span> usages that confuse you, write them down, repeat them aloud, sing them in the shower, text them to your <a href="https://deliberatespanish.com/blog/natives">native friends</a>.</p><p>It will feel awkward at first, but after you put in enough deliberate practice hours, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking,_Fast_and_Slow"><strong>Think Fast</strong></a> part of your brain will take over and <strong>you'll stop feeling like an intermediate</strong>.</p><p>Feel free to <a href="mailto:nacho@deliberatespanish.com/blog">email me</a> or comment below if you have any other <span class="sp">ya</span> questions.</p>