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Is there any difference in meaning between the two sentences in each pair of sentences? Are they equally usual?

Event which started in the past and continues to the past

  • Hace tres años que nosotros nos conocemos.
  • Nosotros nos conocemos (desde) hace tres años.

Event which happened in the past

  • Hace tres años nosotros nos conocimos.
  • Nosotros nos conocimos hace três años.
  • All are correct but as a side note in my area (Colombia) the common forms are "hace 3 años nos conocemos" and "nos conocemos desde hace 3 años" . We almost never use desde at the start of the sentence – DGaleano Oct 25 '19 at 19:20
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    @DGaleano "hace 3 años nos conocemos" without "que" ? – Alan Evangelista Oct 25 '19 at 19:36
  • yes. without que – DGaleano Oct 27 '19 at 22:02
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There is no difference in meaning when only the word order is changed, which is the case for your two later examples (the event that happened in the past). There is however a difference in emphasis. This is extremely common. In the normal word order, when the topic or theme of the conversation has already been established, we often leave the subject implicit:

Nos conocimos hace tres años.

If instead we want to signal a change, we place the new topic at the beginning of the sentence:

Hace tres años nos conocimos.

In the former sentence we were just stating a fact about us (nosotros being the unspoken subject of the sentence and also the running theme of the conversation). In the latter we set up a new timeframe (hace tres años): the sentence, and what may follow, is not longer about us but about what happened three years ago.

The other two examples work in the same way, but there's a difference, which you have already noticed, between {hace + period + que} and {(desde) hace + period}. All these alternatives are possible and correct:

  • Hace tres años que nos conocemos.
  • Desde hace tres años nos conocemos.
  • Nos conocemos desde hace tres años.
  • Hace tres años nos conocemos.

but the first and third (marked by an arrow ←) are by far the most common; the others show a special kind of emphasis.

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  • As a note on this, in my area the common forms are "hace 3 años nos conocemos" and "nos conocemos desde hace 3 años" . We almost never use desde at the start of the sentence. – DGaleano Oct 25 '19 at 19:18
  • Yes, Desde hace tres años nos conocemos is not common at all, it only works with a certain kind of emphasis. Best if used with an indignant ¡Pero...! before it. – pablodf76 Oct 25 '19 at 21:24
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There are no differences bethween the sentences in each pair

They are equally valid, irrespective of the order. That is only a matter of style. Note, though, that there is no need to use the subject "nosotros" in them. They sound and read more naturally without the subject (which is totally clear just with the pronoun "nos" and the verb agreement)

  • Hace tres años que nos conocemos

  • Nos conocemos desde hace tres años

And, for the other two cases which refer to an event in the past (not necessarily alluding to a relationship still alive, like the one in the previous two)

  • Hace tres años nos conocimos

  • Nos conocimos hace tres años

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    +1 I'd only clarify that adding "desde" (written between parentheses by OP) is grammatically more correct in "Nos conocemos desde hace tres años" while it can be, and is usually omitted in informal speech. – Gustavson Oct 25 '19 at 12:36
  • @Gustavson Thanks for the information! I thought that using "desde" was gramatically optional in "desde hace". Could you please point to a grammar reference? – Alan Evangelista Oct 25 '19 at 16:55
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This was supposed to be a comment in answer to a question asked by @AlanEvangelista in response to a previous comment of mine (but, being too long, I turned it into an answer supplementary to the ones already provided):

My comment: I'd only clarify that adding "desde" (written between parentheses by OP) is grammatically more correct in "Nos conocemos desde hace tres años" while it can be, and usually is omitted in informal speech.

OP's follow-up question: I thought that using "desde" was gramatically optional in "desde hace". Could you please point to a grammar reference?

I have found this site: Desde hace vs. Hace where the difference is very well described:

Desde / Desde hace / Desde que

Usamos desde para hablar del comienzo de una acción en el pasado que continúa en el presente. Diferentes formas de usar desde:

Desde + fecha / punto en el tiempo

Vivo en Málaga desde el año 2002.

Desde el otro día no me habla.

Conozco a tu hermana desde el 23 de junio (la fiesta de San Juan).

Desde hace + cantidad de tiempo

Nadie ha visto a Lorena desde hace 2 días.

Estudio inglés desde hace 11 años.

Somos vecinos desde hace 10 meses.

Diferencia entre Hace y Desde hace

La diferencia entre desde hace y hace la puedes ver en los siguiente ejemplos:

Hace 3 años que estudio español.

Desde hace 3 años estudio español.

Ambos ejemplos con Hace y Desde hace pueden parecer iguales, pero en realidad no lo son. El primero con “Hace”, hace más referencia a la cantidad de años que he estudiado español, sin embargo en el segundo ejemplo con “Desde hace” hace más énfasis en la continuidad de la acción.

While it is usual (and correct) to use "Hace X tiempo que" at the beginning of the sentence, the pattern "hace X tiempo" is grammatically objectionable (though commonly used) at the end of the sentence when a present or present perfect tense is used (no problem whatsoever if a past tense is used):

  • Nos conocemos desde hace tres años.

  • Hace tres años que nos conocemos.

  • Nos conocemos hace tres años (colloquial but grammatically objectionable)

  • Nos conocimos hace tres años.

The point is that "hace + X tiempo" without "que" is reserved for PAST actions that do not continue into the present. In this respect, the author of the mentioned blog says:

"Hace + cantidad de tiempo" se usa para expresar una acción pasada que no continúa en el presente.

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  • Thanks, @Gustavson! I know that "desde hace" is more usual than "hace" when used after the subject and verb, I am just unsure of your statement that the latter is gramatically incorrect (I see you use "objectionable" here, which is lighter). I looked for an official rule in the RAE website, but I could not find it. – Alan Evangelista Oct 25 '19 at 19:43
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    @AlanEvangelista I find "Nos conocemos desde hace tres años" grammatically superior, and "Nos conocemos hace tres años" acceptable. The rule, I think, hinges on "hace X tiempo" (without "que") being grammatically used ONLY with the past (similar to English "X time ago"). – Gustavson Oct 25 '19 at 19:49

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