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What are the rules for when to use ya and todavía? (Or ya no and todavía no)?

In many contexts, ya translates to yet or already, and todavía translates to still, but this simple understanding has gotten me confused many times. And asking multiple Spanish teachers has usually gotten a blank stare.

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I'd add word "aún" to the question. –  vartec Nov 18 '11 at 11:09
    
yo a veces uso ya cuando me preguntan por algo que tengo que hacer para dar a entender de que ya estoy enterado. –  Emilio Gort Nov 18 '13 at 18:14

6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Complete vs Ongoing

This is one of those times when there is no one-to-one mapping between English and Spanish words. Here's my understanding:

"Ya" expresses completeness or finality. "Todavía" expresses that something is ongoing.

Examples:

  • "Ya tengo un perro." I already have a dog; this is complete and final. Note: this construction may also mean I finally* have a dog; again being complete and final. The first use would be used as a negative (No thanks, I already have a dog and I don't want another) while second one means satisfaction.
  • "Ya no tengo un perro." I no longer have a dog; this is complete and final.
  • "Todavía tengo un perro." I still have a dog; this is ongoing.
  • "Todavía no tengo un perro." I don't yet have a dog; this is ongoing.
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"Ya" means "already," or "entirely in the past" in the sense of "that's history."

"Todavía" refers to something that may have started in the past, but is continuing into the future.

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"ya" means "now"... "todavía" means "still". In the negative way, "ya no" is "not now" or "not .. anymore" and "todavia no" is "not .. yet"

for example:

"ya puedo viajar" => "now I can travel"

"ya no tengo dinero" => "I don't have money anymore"

"todavía puedo viajar" => "i can still travel"

"todavía no tengo dinero" => "I don't have any money yet"

I was thinking about this, and i came up with a "general rule" to decide when to use "ya" and when to use "todavía"

  • "ya" (as an adverb) is used when the action wasn't happening but now it does

    "ya tengo sueño" means that you were not sleepy before, but now you are

  • "todavía" is used when the action is still in progress

    "todavía tengo sueño" implies that you were sleepy and you're still sleepy now

in the negative:

  • "ya no" is used when an action was happening on the past an now it's not

    "ya no tengo un automovil" means that once you had a car but now you dont

  • "todavia no" is used to express that the action wasn't happening and it's still not happening now. It also implies that you're planning/waiting to do the action in the future

    "todavia no tengo un automóvil" means that you didn't have a car and you still don't have one and implies that you're planning to get one

in conclusion

"ya" (as adverb) is used to express a complete change on the action "ya soy", "ya tengo", "ya no puedo"

"todavia" is used to express a continuity of the action "todavía soy", "todavia hay", "todavia no sé"

Hope this was clear =P (sorry if I missed some accents)

Edited

"ya" is more than an adverb..a few other usages:

  • it could mean "ok" or "yes" when answering a question

quieres salir esta noche?

ya

  • It could mean "yet" when it's in a question

"ya saliste?"

  • It could also mean "go!"

listos....YA!

For more check it's definition on a dictionary ... ya? =P

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4  
Ya doesn't just mean "now", but also "already", for example, "Ya lo había oído." You might want to be more specific in your answer. –  Alenanno Nov 17 '11 at 9:46
    
I always think of ya as already and ahora as now, though I know and use ya also in the sense of now. –  hippietrail Nov 17 '11 at 10:48
    
yo a veces uso ya cuando me preguntan por algo que tengo que hacer para dar a entender de que ya estoy enterado –  Emilio Gort Nov 18 '13 at 18:14

Strictly speaking, ya means "already" and todavía means "still." All other usage patterns stem from this fundamental fact. This is what I always lean on when deciding what sounds natural.

As an example, ya lo tengo and todavía lo tengo have clear differences of meaning; one means that you now have it (or already have it) and the other means that you still have it. In the context of having it now, it would follow other sentences or circumstances in which the object wasn't in the speaker's possession and a change occurred leading to them having it. This is what I find most prevalent in the use of ya to mean now. It implies a more immediate or recent "now" than ahora. Todavía would never be used this way, since it implies a consistent state both in the past context and the current one.

Potential confusion can arise due to both ya and todavía potentially meaning "yet," but they tend to be semi-interchangeable, with slight variations in meaning - I find that ya has a sharper/more accusatory sound whereas todavía is more neutral or impatient, depending on intonation).

Compare:

Ya no lo tengo.

No lo tengo todavía.

¿Ya no lo has hecho?

¿Todavía no lo has hecho?

Ya never means still in any context of which I'm aware.

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ya is definite, while todavía means that for now it's one way but it may (or may not) change.

To use your example, ya no means "this is not true anymore and it will never be true again", while todavía no means "this is not true yet, but it may be true later".

As Rafael pointed out, it depends on the context (I used "Ya no" and "Todavía no" disconnected from any phrase), but it's still definite.
To use his example, Ya no tengo sueño means that I'm not sleepy anymore, I will be sleepy again at night, but for this "sleeping period" I finished.
If I were to say Todavía tengo sueño I would be implying that I haven't finished sleeping yet and need to sleep more, it implies continuity.

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"his is not true anymore and it will never be true again" that is totally wrong: "Ya no tengo sueño" means I'm not sleepy anymore, but it doesn't mean you won't be sleepy again, edit it to remove the -1. –  isJustMe Nov 15 '11 at 21:33
    
I'm trying to rephrase it to better convey what I meant. –  jmfsg Nov 15 '11 at 21:35
    
I hope that's clearer @Rafael.IT, I realized it's a tricky question to answer! :) –  jmfsg Nov 15 '11 at 21:42

todavía means is currently happening and is been happening before, example:

Todavia soy bueno para jugar soccer // I'm still good at playing soccer

Ya is generally used when something changed from a different condition, example:

Ya soy bueno para jugar soccer // Now, I'm good at playing soccer

Just to clarify: on the first one the context suggests that you always been good at playing soccer and you still are, on the second one it suggests that previously you were not good and now you are. I hope it was clear enough.

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