Length or Duration of Time in Spanish

Words directly translating ‘for’ shouldn’t be overused

Clock Gate and Tower in Cartagena, Colombia
The Puerta del Reloj and Torre del Reloj (the Clock Gate and Tower, respectively) are historic landmarks in Cartagena, Colombia.

Jesse Kraft / EyeEm / Getty Imates

Spanish has several ways of describing how long an event or activity occurs. Although we often us "for" in English for length or duration of time—such as in "I have worked for a year"—the typical ways of translating "for" often don't apply.

Which way you use to in using time periods in Spanish depends partly on whether the activity is still in progress, and in some cases on whether you're talking about a long or short time period.

Using Llevar With Duration of Time

The most common way of describing the length of time of an activity in progress is using the verb llevar. Note the use of the present tense in these examples even though the English uses a present perfect or present perfect progressive verb.

  • El bloguero ya lleva un año encarcelado. (The blogger has already been incarcerated for a year.)
  • El cantante lleva cinco años esperando para grabar bachata con el ex Beatle. (The singer has been waiting for five years to record bachata with the former Beatle.)
  • Mi hijo de dos años lleva un mes con mucosidad y tos. (My 2-year-old son has had a runny nose and cough for a month.)
  • La mujer lleva cinco semanas en huelga de hambre. (The woman has been on a hunger strike for five weeks.)
  • Nuestro país lleva muchos años en proceso de deterioro. (Our country has been deteriorating for many years.)

Para Has Limited Use in Time Expressions

You may be tempted to use the preposition para, usually translated as "for," in sentences like the above, but its use is limited to being part of a phrase that acts like an adjective, that is, an adjectival phrase, especially one that refers to how long something lasts or is used. Notice how in these examples "para + time period" follows a noun and gives more information about that noun. Para is not used this way following a verb, thus forming an adverbial phrase, as "for" can be in English.

  • ¿Cuánto dinero se necesita para una semana en Buenos Aires? (How much money is needed for a week in Buenos Aires?
  • Tenemos una dieta completa para una semana. (We have a complete diet for a week.)
  • Los Cavaliers han llegado a un acuerdo para dos años con el atleta. (The Cavaliers have reached a two-year agreement with the athlete.)

Using Hacer for Translating ‘Ago’

The construction "hacer + time period + que" can be used much like llevar above, and it often used specifically in translating sentences using "ago." The verb following que is in the present tense if the action is continuing to now:

  • Hace tres años que juega para los Piratas de Campeche. (He has been playing for three years for the Campeche Pirates. He has been playing since three years ago for the Campeche Pirates.)
  • Hace dos horas que estoy sentada en mi cama. (I have been seated on my bed for two hours. I have been seated on my bed since two hours ago.)
  • ¡Hace una semana que no fumo! (I haven't smoked for a week!)

If the event no longer continues, the verb following que is usually in the preterite:

  • Hace un año que fui a mi primer concierto. (A year ago I went to my first concert.)
  • Hace un minuto que estuviste triste. (You were sad a minute ago.)
  • Hace pocos meses que Imagine Dragons pasaron por Argentina. (A few months ago Imagine Dragons passed through Argentina.)

Using Por With Short Time Periods

Just as para has limited use with duration of time, so does por. Por is almost always used with brief periods of time or to suggest that the period of time might be less than expected: In contrast with time phrases using para, phrases using por function as adverbs.

  • La economía está pasando por un momento de transición. (The economy is passing through a moment of transition.)
  • Creí por un segundo que me amabas. (For a second I thought you loved me.)
  • Precalienta el plato en un horno microondas por solo un minuto. (Preheat the plate in a microwave oven for just a minute. The phrase por solo un minuto here modifies the meaning of precalienta even though it immediately follows the noun phrase horno microondas.)

Key Takeaways

  • "Lleva + time period" is a common way of describing how long an activity has been taking place.
  • "Hace + time period" can be used in sentences where English would use "ago."
  • Para has limited use in forming adjectival time phrases, while por has limited use in forming adverbial time phrases.