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My text book has the following uses of “how long”, but the Spanish is structured differently each time:

Example 1:

How long have you worked here?
¿Cuánto tiempo hace que trabaja aquí?

This uses Cuánto tiempo for how long and hace que for have.

Example 2:

How long have you been living in California?
¿Cuánto tiempo ha estado viviendo en California?

This again uses Cuánto tiempo for how long but now ha is used for have.

Example 3:

How long have you lived here?
¿Cuánto hace que vive aquí?

This uses Cuánto for how long but it doesn’t use tiempo. Like the first example it uses hace que for have.

I can understand Example 1 being different as it is talking about work. However, Example 2 and 3 both talking about living.

How does the concept of "how long" work in Spanish? Is there a rule to know to when to use each construction? Or are the differences conveying a nuance of meaning?

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    The third can also be translated as "¿Desde cuándo vives aquí?", something like "since when". – Sergio Tx Oct 7 '16 at 10:07
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First of all, your case 3 is an example of ellision; the word tiempo is just ellided, but it is understood to be there. So your example is equivalent to ¿Cuánto tiempo hace que vive aquí?

The construction hace + <time expression> + que means that <time expression> has passed since something happened (if you then use a verb in the past tense) or started happening and continues to happen (if you use a verb in the present tense):

Hace tres años que Pepe vive en Madrid --> Pepe has been living in Madrid for the last three years

Hace tres años que Pepe murió --> Pepe died three years ago

On the contrary, your second example deals with the amount of time something lasted; the action may or may not have finished. But if the person you are talking to is still living in California, you can use the other construction with the exact same meaning:

¿Cuánto tiempo hace que vive en California?

So, as you can see, both constructions can have the same meaning if you are talking about a continuous action that is not yet finished. But one can also be used for instantaneous actions and the other can also be used for finished actions.

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  • so does example 3 not use the ha form to indicate a finished action (i.e. that the person no longer lives there)? Also does ellison change the meaning at all (e.g. make it more informal) – big_smile Sep 30 '16 at 10:46
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    The elision is quite common. There is another common one (or was, to be honest I haven't paid attention if it's used much in modern Spanish) that has/had a standard interpretation absent other indications: cuántas (veces). For example, ¿cuántas te he dicho que no me llames? Granted, that's not used for duration of time, but iteration/repetition. – user0721090601 Sep 30 '16 at 13:58
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    Formal writing uses complete phrases, and ellision is used in informal talk and writing. So to write "Cuanto tienes viviendo aqui?", omitting tiempo will happen in informal setups, but you won't find that in formal writing. The meaning of the phrase is not changed and the omitted word is considered known by context. – fernando.reyes Sep 30 '16 at 21:16
  • I am not a 100% clear on the use of ha still. For example, does ¿Cuánto tiempo ha estado viviendo en California? indicate that the person no longer lives in California, while ¿Cuánto tiempo hace que vive en California? indicate that the person still lives there? Is that right? Thanks. – big_smile Oct 1 '16 at 14:04
  • The use of the perfect participle (the ha form) somehow indicates that the person no longer lives there, but not conclusively. You could use it for a person still living there too. – Gorpik Oct 3 '16 at 2:21
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We use the perfect a lot en English to represent an ongoing event. When I was teaching I told my students that the way to think about "how long have you..." is to think "how much time does it make". ¿Cuánto tiempo hace que vive aquí? = How much time does it make that you live (are living) here? Not necessarily good English but it follows the Spanish if you are trying to translate directly.

Hope that helps some,

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