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I have heard the phrase "desde ya" used to mean "in advance." Literally, it means "since already." How is it understood to mean "in advance," or is it simply an idiom with a nonsense literal meaning? Can the phrase mean anything else besides "in advance"?

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"Ya" doesn't always mean "already", indeed it can also mean "right now" for example in a sentence like: hazlo ya (do it right now). So literally, it also means "since right now" – Javi Dec 6 '11 at 21:56
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The DRAE says:

desde ya.

  1. loc. adv. Ahora mismo, inmediatamente.

So, the "official" meaning is right now, immediately.

The expression desde ya, however, is used as a closing formula as in desde ya, le quedo agradecido which would mean something like from this moment I am thankful and could be translated (with some freedom) to the standard thanks, in advance; this last use could explain why desde ya can be sometimes understood as in advance, although that is not its intended meaning.

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Also, in some regions "desde ya" is used as "por supuesto" – Dr. belisarius Dec 7 '11 at 0:29
@belisarius: I didn't know that; in what regions? – Gonzalo Medina Dec 7 '11 at 0:38
Argentina, and I believe in Uruguay too. In fact "Pues ya" is here cited as meaning "por supuesto" – Dr. belisarius Dec 7 '11 at 1:31

Although Gonzalo's answer is excellent I have something to add about the meaning of desde ya:

Desde ya literally means from now, even if the intended meaning is almost always resumed into this moment it is many times understood as in advance

DRAE link.

I personally don't think that desde ya is always a closing formula. It can be used in other cases such as in a letter:

Desde ya, hemos estado trabajando en el contrato del cual usted nos habló con anterioridad [...]

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