Despite being one of the shortest words in Spanish, ya can be a hard one to wrap your head around. The problem is further compounded when you throw todavía in the mix. Often confused as synonyms, these two words just can’t be shelved for later. Nor can they be wished away as they are indispensable to most every conversation in the street.
To further complicate matters, you have aún which is almost a synonym for todavía. Almost. And if you thought learning these three would get you up and running, along comes aun. Notice that little accent mark in aún? It’s called an acute accent, not that you have to know it. The aun without that mark is not a typo; it’s an actual word and doesn’t mean the same thing as aún does!
So, there are two key challenges learners face here. First is knowing how to interpret each one of them in context. And the second is to understand the differences between them – both subtle and not-so-subtle. Even where two words appear synonymous – e.g., todavía and aún – they differ in nuance. In this article, I attempt to break it all down for you and ensure you leave confident with the two bad boys of Spanish – ya and todavía. I will not be covering aún and aun this time but that’s not to say I never will! Just like por vs. para, ya vs. todavía has been a major pain in the neck for rookie learners. Well, not anymore.
This is one deceptively confusing word. Ya can be interpreted as anything from already to anymore and yes to yet depending entirely on the context! This doesn’t sound good, does it? The versatility of this tiny little word confused the hell out of me when I started out! Remembering every single interpretation of the word and recalling them during a live conversation is not easy. What’s even harder is picking the right interpretation for the right context. All of this can be nailed with a simple trick. But before we get to that, it’s important to understand the problem.
The problem is figuring out an easy way to remember, recall, and apply everything ya means. So what are these meanings? Let’s check them out. Oh and by the way, avoid using ya in formal written communications. The word is mostly confined to informal speech and you should stick to this practice.
Already (with Verb in Past Tense)
This is what ya means when something anticipated to happen did happen. It’s safe to assume this is the primary translation of the word and covers a good majority of real-world usage examples. The easiest way to identify a case for already is to note the tense. If the verb ya is used with is in the past tense, it’s likely that the translation is already.
Ya lo has leído (You’ve already read that).
El domingo, ya habrán salido (By Sunday, they would’ve already left).
Finally (with Verb in Past Tense)
Just like already, finally is also a possible interpretation of ya, especially if the sentence is in the past tense. I admit, this can get a tad tricky at times but for the most part, context helps you pick between finally and already.
¡Ya lo visto! (I finally saw it!)
Ya están aquí (They are finally here).
Anymore (in Negative Sentences)
If your ya has a no slapped to it, the meaning changes. While ya means already or finally, ya no means not anymore or no longer. In the case of ya, something wasn’t happening until now but it does now. In the case of ya no, something was happening until now but not anymore.
Ya no viven aquí (They don’t live here anymore).
Ya no me gusta la comida mexicana (I don’t like Mexican food anymore).
Yet (in Questions)
If you hear the word ya in a question, you can safely assume that it means yet in most cases. Of course, it can also mean already but yet should be your first bet. It’s like when you’re asking if something that wasn’t happening until now has finally happened. Don’t see this interpretation as any different from anymore, already, or finally.
¿Llamaron ya? (Did they call yet?)
¿Ya has terminado? (Have you finished yet?)
Ahora is Spanish for now. Add a mismo to it and you have ahora mismo, Spanish for right now. So why use ya? I don’t know; maybe because it’s much cooler? English speakers use already in this sense all the time:
Just do it already, okay?
The above sentence essentially asks you to do it now but using already lends a sense of urgency now can’t. That’s exactly what happens with ya. It lends a sense of urgency to the sentence that ahora cannot.
Ya puedes irte (You can leave now).
Lo quiero ya (I want it right now).
As a General Emphasis
Ya can often be used as a near-filler solely for the purpose of emphasis. This happens especially when the sentence uses would in English. Think of ya as totally in this context.
Ya me gustaría ir (I would love to go).
Ya lo comería (She would eat it).
Later (with Verb in Future Tense)
That, or eventually. This is how ya translates when used with a verb in the future tense. How’s this different from luego? Well, ya is more like a reassurance that you’ll definitely do it but only later instead of now. Luego has no such implication; it just means later.
Tranquilo, ya ocurriré (Patience, it’ll happen).
Ya lo hará (She’ll do it later).
Yes (Expressing Agreement or Incredulity)
Ya kinda rhymes with yeah and that should help you remember this connection. The yes implied by ya can either be a plain-vanilla agreement or a cynical whatever.
Ya, y yo soy James Bond (Yeah, and I am James Bond).
Ya pero no le quiero (Yeah but I don’t love her).
Ya: The Mantra
No matter what interpretation you consider, they all converge at already. That’s one word that covers the essence of ya in its entirety. And that is what you should exploit. The moment you see ya in a sentence, the first thing you must understand is that the action being discussed is from the past. Confused? Think already. If I told you that I already have a car, don’t I mean I acquired it in the past? This is the very axis around with every interpretation of ya goes.
Take any translation of ya from any context and you can relate it to already. At least in most cases. See these examples to understand what I mean by this:
I finally have a car (Now I already have a car).
I don’t sing anymore (I already stopped singing).
Are you done yet? (Are you done already?)
Come to me right now! (Come to me already!)
I’d love to go (I’m already up for going).
She’ll do it later, don’t worry (She’ll do it already, don’t worry).
I admit the already-association might be a tad contrived in some cases like later, finally, and yeah. But a lot of ground can still be covered by it. For a complete control over ya, I suggest memorizing the following key interpretations:
With these four, you’ll be as natural with ya as it gets. But how do you do that? Well, try a little imagination and you should have it down. Imagine you have a lot of homework to do and you’ve been on it like forever. Your friend is getting impatient because you two are getting late for the movie. This is how the conversation goes:
Hey, you done with your homework yet? It’s already 5!
Yes, I’m finally through with the essay but yet to review it. I’ll do it later.
Great, get ready then. Or else I’ll leave without you.
Yeah right, like you could really do that.
Remember this conversation and you should have every interpretation of ya readily on your tongue. This is not the most sophisticated of all mnemonics but trust me, it does the job. You don’t even have to memorize the conversation it’s already the kind of talk you’ll have in a situation like that. So just remember the situation and it’ll automatically lead you to the conversation which will lead you to ya. For further reinforcement, check out this excellent video tutorial by Cynthia and Gordon.
By the way, if you’ve absolutely understood ya, you must also add ya basta (enough already) to your vocabulary. It’s an extremely handy expression and you’ll hear it all the time especially in Spanish-language TV shows and movies. Basta is a derivative of bastar which means to suffice. The expression is so ubiquitous, it even has an entire Wikipedia® entry to itself!
Todavía is your friend when you want to imply some kind of continuity. Luckily, this word has a much narrow range of possible interpretations as compared to ya. While ya can mean such seemingly disjoint things as yes and finally, todavia is largely stable and homogenous. While ya can be used as an adverb as well as a conjunction depending on the context, todavía is always an adverb. This should make life a whole lot easier for newbie learners.
Still (Affirmative Sentences)
This is the single most common interpretation of todavía. Remember what i said about continuity above? That’s what still implies. If I said I was still working, I am referring to a continuous action. I was working before I said it and I was working while I said it. It’s really that simple. Let the following examples illustrate this:
Todavía tengo que comprarle un regalo (I still have to buy her a present).
¿Pero vive todavía? (But is she still alive?)
Yet (Negative Sentences)
This is probably the point where people get their ya and todavía mixed up. If you remember, yet is also one of the things ya translates into in some contexts. And now turns out todavía does that too! But continuity is the key here. Look at the following example:
Are you finished yet?
The yet in this example does not imply continuity. You are doing something and haven’t finished it, not to my knowledge. Which is why I am asking you. What you’re doing is continuous but I am concerned about you finishing it and that part is not continuous. You will finish it when you finish it. Once. That is why this example warrants a ya when translated. On the other hand, see this:
I haven’t eaten anything yet.
Here, I am talking about not eating. This is a continuous action. I have not been eating for a while now. The yet here does not refer to a single-stroke event. It refers to the continuity of me not eating. That is why this is a case for todavía.
As a rule of thumb, you can go with the idea that yet is todavía only if it’s in a negative sentence (or question). If not, it’s most likely ya. Not hard to remember, is it?
In Spite of That (as an Emphasis)
Todavía can also translate into in spite of that and that’s a given since the idiom can easily be replaced by still or yet. Since todavía already stands for still and yet, it might as well for in spite of that. This is like emphasizing something that happens against certain odds.
He hecho todo y todavía no está contenta (I did everything and yet she’s not happy).
Fue grosera y todavía me gusta (She was rude and I still liked her).
Even (in the Sense of Including)
In English, the word even can have a wide range of meanings. One of them is in the sense of including or on top of. Think expressions like even better or even more. This is the connotation todavía can have at times. Whenever you’re using even in a comparative context, todavía can fill in.
Es todavía más inteligente que su hermano (He’s even more intelligent than his brother).
Suena todavía mejor cuando tú la cantas (It sounds even better when you sing it).
Todavía: The Mantra
Like I said above, everything todavía means points to a continuous action. Also, like I said above, everything todavía translates into can be condensed into a single word – still. If you can remember still against todavía, you can derive all other meanings from it. Alright, maybe even too. So, you’ve got to somehow memorize still and even for todavía.
The easiest trick is, of course, using mnemonics. Todavía partially rhymes with today. Let’s exploit that. Remember the friend from ya who was bugging you to finish your homework because you were getting late for a movie? Bring back that story. This time, imagine yourself as super-tired from all the homework and no longer in the mood of going anywhere. You just feel like lying in bed for an eternity like a dead sloth. How do you deal with your friend now?
I’m still busy and even if I weren’t, I wouldn’t go today.
With the right emphasis, this sentence will not only shut your friend up but also make todavía feel at home in your memory. It has both still and even and it also has today to remind you of todavia. What more could you need? Mnemonics never fail when it comes to vocabulary, do they?
Once again, todavía is continuous and ya is one-time. Continuous is longer than once and todavía is longer than ya – Use this as a memory aid to remember the difference!
So there you are, the easy-peasy way to decode the most versatile word (and its most confusing partner) in the Spanish lexicon in a conversation. If you are creative enough, you can come up with a far better idea to memorize all translations of these two words. And if you do, please don’t forget to share it with the rest of the world in a comment below!