Word of the Day – “schon”

schonYo yo yo ladies and gentlemen,

I want you to give me an s:      “S”

Gimme a c:                                      “Atlantic”

gimme an h:                                   “H”

gimme an on:                                “ON”

What’s that spell??                      “Paaaaaaaaaaaaaartaay”

Damn right, it spells party so turn up the volume, grab a partner and bust a move…. … … yeah… … … … …

All right, enough. Time to focus on German and our word today is

schon (pron.: shohn… kind of)

 

Schon is one of the most frequently used words in both written and spoken German. I am sure no matter in which top 100 list you look you will find schon there.
It is not only one of the most useful but also most confusing words… just like doch  or eben. It seems to be everywhere but half of the time the dictionary translation doesn’t make any sense at all.
Today we’ll change that… do you hear me, schon? If you’re listening to this… you had it coming, you word, you. I know you fancy yourself a tough word, but students of German are tough, too. They take on cases for breakfast, man, and today it is ooon… You are sooo going doooown! By the end of this post you’ll be like “Oh no, what just happened… I… I’ve been fully explained, oh God, I feel so exposed.” That’ll teach you to… oh… oh I… uh I’m sorry, I got a little carried away. I just had to pump up a little I guess because schon has been on my list forever and it seems like this massive unclimbable wall… just check out schon at Pons to see what I mean… so let’s start hiking, shall we?

Before we get to the meanings of schon let’s have a quick look at its origin. There is another word that looks quite similar to schon. The only difference is that it is wearing make-up (check out the brand here). Why is it wearing make up? Because it wants to be beauti… ok I think you got it :).  Schon is closely related to schön many of you probably know as beautiful. But schön is a little broade… wait, I shouldn’t say that about a lady… schön is a little more faceted than just beautiful because it often is used as nice… for instance for a vacation.
Both words, schon and schön, go back to the Indo-European root *skeue which meant something like to pay attention or to perceive. And this is in fact also the root of the English word to show. And there is even a closer relative of schon in English: a scone (read more here) which is a highly prized bakery delicacy.
So… schon originally meant nicely or beautifully. From there it shifted more and more toward satisfyingly, which is not so far away from completely and thus we have already reached the first meaning of schon.

schon – already and beyond

The main meaning of schon today is already

  • Ich habe schon gegessen.
  • I already ate.
    [sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://yourdailygerman.com/wp-content/uploads/schon-audio/schon-1-eaten.mp3″]

Now what about the negative? So, what if there is a not involved? For the most part English would use not yet to phrase that, but in some occasions not already might work as well. Not in German, though. Nicht schon never works and will always be noch nicht.

All right….  now, thinking of schon as simply already is totally fine in the every day, but actually schon is a little bit more broad than already. In one article here, I had an example where I had simply translated schon as already, but then someone pointed out to me in a comment that this doesn’t work in that particular situation. So here is the example…

Already has a notion of accomplishment so there needs to be something that is (being) accomplished.
Schon, just like its counterparts in French or Polish for that matter, is a little broader than already in that it doesn’t always need an accomplished action. Let’s take a short example:

Here, schon indicates that 12 is considered somewhat early either by me, the listener or the general public. So… it is really vague. Here are possible contexts for the sentence:

  • My plan was originally to come at 3 so 12 is kinda early compared to that.
  • My company thinks 5 is a good time to go home so 12 is kinda early.
  • There is a party tomorrow that starts at 11 so… 12 would be kind of early to leave by party attendance standards.

So schon can also express wow, that is kinda early and it totally depends on the context and personal opinions when this is applicable.
And as we’re at that let’s be real nerds and generalize this idea of schon to wow, that’s kinda quite something” and see this as the core meaning of schon for a second.
Now you might be like, “But why… I… I really liked the already version just fine… don’t confuse me now”… well, the reason why it is useful to be so nerdy is that it makes schon the direct opposite of erst which expresses “wow, that’s not so much (yet). Here are a few examples…

So by changing just one word I can look at the same fact from 2 different points of view and this shows that schon is a little more general than already, with its rather strong notion of accomplishment.
But I think for daily life it is safe to just think of schon as already.
Now, before we get to the other schon (the weird confusing hard to translate filler schon) there are 2 kind of fixed expressions that you really need to know. I am sure they will sound familiar. The first one is schon wieder.

The dictionary tells us that again means wieder… but in fact wieder alone just expresses the idea that something is re-occurring. The schon adds what is entirely implied by inflection and common knowledge in English… the idea that it is a “kinda earlier than expected”-repetition…. and that is exactly the “wow, that’s kinda early” meaning of schon we … uh … “schon” know.
Great. Now forget the “kinda early” meaning for a second and focus on the already part. The second fixed expression with schon is schon mal… what? Oh, oh yes I know you want mal explained. I will do it in… Malch… …. (get it? It is like with l instead of r)
So… in statements, schon mal pretty much expresses the idea of already. I think the mal makes it sound less completed, less definite… I don’t really know how to express this…

Now, when we use schon mal in a question the English translation changes. But the idea expressed is actually the same.

These questions are incredibly common in German and you should learn them.

So … what we’ve learned so far is that schon means already most of the time,  but it is a little more broad than already, and is the direct opposite of erst and part of 2 incredible handy constructions, namely schon wieder and schon mal. Cool. We have reached base-camp, if you remember my climbing metaphor.
And now let’s talk about all the other schons, the practicle schons, the filler schons or the coloring schons, however you want to call it
… let’s start the real ascent.

Schon – coloring orders

Good news for all native speakers of American English: schon in imperative sentences (commands) is not going to be a new concept for you because just like already, schon expresses impatience in those sentences.

  • Sag schon!
  • Say it, already!

I am not sure as to how strong adding already is in this context but schon can have different intensities and it really comes down to how you say it. You can say either example in a really nice, encouraging way or you can flat out bark it at someone. This use of schon is not the most common one but there is one expression that is used a lot…

Komm schon is mostly used in a context of encouraging someone to do something.

It doesn’t really work if you want to doubt someone’s statement. Just to give you an example

But anyway… so schon used in giving orders can be anything from encouraging to really pushy.

Schon – coloring statements

The Duden, a German reference for word meaning and spelling, lists up to 8 possible meanings for the coloring-schon (check them out here). 8 is fine, but less would be better. And after turning the word around and around in my head for weeks, I finally found a way to verbally capture the essence of what schon does to a statement with just 2 words :

  • dispersing doubt

Now let’s see what we can do with this. The first group of sentences using schon as a color are meant to encourage someone.

So schon adds kind of the same reassuring effect as does don’t worry… it is dispersing doubt. By the way… this schon neatly ties in with its beautiful-origin.

More examples:

Here the schon tries to actively disperse the doubt of the other person. That makes it different from an intensifier like really. Really just intensifies that the speaker thinks it is correct spelling while schon has a subtext of “Let go, chill out, accept”. And even more examples:

In fact this “geht schon” is something that is used a lot. It does not mean that things are awesome but are “okay enough”.

Here, schon disperses the doubt that the soup has passed the okay-threshhold. Nothing more. It doesn’t imply greatness, just asserts “okayness” and leaves room for follow up nit pick.
Now what about examples like this:

How does schon disperse doubt here? Doesn’t it rather raise some? Doesn’t it set up a but just as I guess does? Those are legit questions and when you look up other explanations for schon, including the Duden one, you will read that these schons make the statement sound less convincing than it would be without it and that schon sets up the but. But frankly, I think that is missing the point and creates 2 contradictory meanings (reassuring vs skeptical) where one would be enough. There is a slightly skeptical, doubtful tone to schon here but it is not contradicting the dispersing doubt idea…. why not? Well, I could just bail out and say “Well, to disperse can mean a lot of things including to spread.” But, I also think that despite setting up a but, schon asserts the part before the but. But I honestly think that even in those examples, schon disperses some doubt… either the doubt about the mere “okayness” of the whole thing or the doubt about one particular aspect. Let me prove my point with more examples:

Here, schon disperses the doubt about the fun part while leaving room for a but. Wow… this is a really heavy climb :)… but this was the toughest part. Let’s rest for a second and look back…. oh, sooo nice…
The core idea of schon is dispersing doubt. But it can remain very skeptical. and at times it just disperses doubt about one aspect while leaving others open for debate. At time it can sound very skeptical and doubtful in general but at least the part before schon is assured. One last example for this:

All right… so we almost got it and there are just a couple of more situations you need to know. Another group of sentences with schon are rhetorical questions.

In questions like these, schon implies that the answer to the question is in fact: nothing or no one.  In the first example it evaporates doubts that Thomas could do anything of consequence for me. In the second one it leaves no doubt that nothing will be achieved and so on.
Then, there are those statements that are said as a question (affirmative questions) and schon is often part of those.

Again, schon has something to do with dispersing doubt. Without schon, it would be a simple affirmative question.

  • You have a license, right?

Schon adds the notion that I have actually little doubt that what I am saying is true and I would be really surprised if the answer was no. So with schon I just want affirmation of what I already consider to be a fact. Now, wait a second… affirmation… wasn’t that the core idea of doch… seeking affirmation? Yes, it is and in these sentences the 2 words are really close. But there is a difference.

The schon sounds waaaaaay more convinced. It almost affirms itself (because it has doubt dispersing powers) while doch is yearning for affirmation because it is just not sure. The doch-version can work when you just feel like you heard once that the person has a license but also if the person says that he or she can’t drive that very day. Let me try to capture that in English.

  • Hey it just occurred to me that you have a license, is that right?
  • But why not? I thought you had a license?!

The schon version could be said by a police officer after upon your saying that you have no license to show. The cop assumes that you don’t have it WITH you.
So… schon is way more sure of itself than doch is in affirmative questions.
And thus we get to the last situation… but wait… didn’t I promise there would be only a couple of situations earlier and not 3? I did, but I used it the German way ;)
So… the last situation in which schon is very common looks like this:

So what exactly does the schon do here? It accepts or concedes that there is no way around what is said before and at the same time it sets up a condition of yours.

So … does that tie in with the dispersing doubt idea? Well, it kind of does. Schon verbally admits that all your hope of dodging the romantic comedy is lost. You have to watch one, there is NO doubt about that anymore. Not because of schon, but schon expresses it. And by the way

We made it !!!!!

We have reached the top of the mountain. And I am really exhausted and I am sure you are, too. But the good thing is, we don’t have to climb down :).
So… here is the quick recap.
Schon comes from schön which means beautiful. Schon often means already and it is the direct opposite of erst, which has no English translation. As a coloring particle schon always disperses some doubt, but it can still sound very skeptical. I think this dispersing doubt thing is really the core of the word and it even kind of works with the already-schon… I am already here is kind of like, “There is no doubt that I am here”. But this is really abstract and if you don’t agree then that’s fine :). I just tried to boil it down as much as possible. So… if you have any questions or suggestions or if my English examples are wrong or if I missed a notion of schon or if you just need to express that you are tired, please leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.
Oh … and if you need to chill out now… here is a song that I find really relaxing … enjoy

Click here to download all audio files (zip-archive, mp3 files)

for members :)

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Briguy

Ohhh man, that was a tough climb, glad im schon fertig! I just wanted to point out that we (at least in amarica) do infact use already for the third kind of schon you mentiond.

If were already watching a rom-com (romance comedy) then we might as well have dirty hot s… Make it a schmalzy one!

By the way, I don’t think schmaltzy is an englisch word. I couldnt find a translation for “schmalzige” or however you spelled it (im too exausted to scroll all the way back up and check the spelling) but i did enter it into my trustes I phone translater and it didnt give me a translation.

Periannan Chandrasekaran
Periannan Chandrasekaran

Hallo Emmanuel
Dieses Blog war toll zu lesen.Es raeumt viele Zweifel beim Nutzen der Partikel “schon” aus.
Vielen Dank.

EeroK
EeroK

Good post, once again! Interesting to read, as schon is one of those words that kind of sneaked into my vocabulary without too much active learning. Just heard it repeated enough, that I had most of the meanings already pretty much figured out, but this makes it even more clear and I can now use it with more confidence :)

Just one stupid question: Does “Ich glaube/denke schon” fit under one of the mentioned explanations? That’s probably the first meaning for schon that I learned, as that is repeated pretty often :)

Joe
Joe

Great article, as always. This one will definitely take a couples reads and some practice. As for your question about the negative in English: you will almost never hear someone say “not already” especially in spoken English. It would sound really weird to me. The negative is always made by just tacking “yet” on the end of the sentence (obviously after using “not” with the verb).

Joe
Joe

Also, I assume the schon mal phrasing is actually a shortened schon einmal, correct? In my lessons we were taught those questions using the phrase schon einmal. The English translations for those questions in spoken English are normally:

Have you ever been to Paris [before]?
Yes I have been there [before].
Or
No I have never been there [before].

The “before” is often omitted, especially in spoken English, since it’s implied that you’re talking about the past.

Taylor
Taylor

Great article, thank you. Has there already been a post about “immer schon”?

Jurgen
Jurgen

Ach endlich das Wort “schon”. Vielen dank! Das ist genau das worauf ich gewartet habe :) Kannst du bitte auch deine “German Words of the day so far” Sektion updaten? Manche Wörter wie zum Beispiel “schon” und “ganz” fehlen da noch. Danke nochmal :)

Henrik
Henrik

Bei “schon immer gut” scheint mir die Frage zu sein, was sich auf was bezieht. “(schon immer) gut” oder “schon (immer gut)”
Ohne den Hinweis durch die Betonung liest man wahrscheinlich die erste Variante. Die entspricht vielleicht deshalb eher der Umstellung “(immer schon) gut”, bei der immer und gut getrennt werden.

David
David

Many thanks for this; it’s great. Two thoughts: in the sense of ‘schon wieder’ we sometimes say ‘yet again’ in English.
Also, if you do try to rework it with the ‘opposite of not’ notion, which I found very helpful, you might be helped by these examples:

Don’t you have a license? (for your doch example)
You have a license, don’t you? (for your schon example)
You will come tomorrow, won’t you?

Dave
Dave

I cannot believe how good your posts are! What a great help! You should write a book like this! I went to a German speaking school in US for 8 years when I was younger (over 30 years ago), so so much of what you say “sounds” right on all of your pages, but I never really knew the reasons why. And since my German has gotten so terribly rusty over the years, sometimes I start to mix up some of the words and get confused as to which one sounds “better” anymore.

One thing that I have confused (and maybe always did) is the difference between “schon” and “zwar” in setting up the “aber” phrase (NY ist schon eine große Stadt, aber…. vs Er ist zwar ein reicher Mann, aber…) . I never remember hearing “zwar” when I was younger in that way (my teachers were all from the North), so I think I always used “schon” to set up the “but” phrase”. It feels like there is a difference, but I just can’t get at it if there is one. Can you help, please? Thanks!

Dave
Dave

Thank you for your obviously well-thought-out response! I’ll have to read it over a few times and then just absorb it. It does make sense to me on a very subconscious level that I can’t explain………………

Sam Hardman

Thanks for writing this. Schon is such a difficult word to understand but now I think I understand it a little better. I really do love your blog!

I wonder if you could help with this sentence? “Es ist schon zu lange her, seitdem ich hier war” which I would translate to “It has been too long since I was here”. What does schon do in this sentence? It doesn’t seem to be dispelling doubt and it doesn’t make much sense if it is translated as “already”….
Also I think “Es hat zu lange gewesen, seitdem ich hier war” is wrong, but why?

Len Paton
Len Paton

The second example of “Schon” (already & beyond) at the top of the page is missing the last word, isn’t it? …. geschlossen

Deepesh Hada
Deepesh Hada

Well I was listening to this song by Coldplay, named ‘Magic’. I’ll take an excerpt out of this song,
“Do you believe in magic?
Yes I do!”
Now can we use ‘schon’ for the second line? :)

Al
Al

Eines deines Beispiels war es:

“War schon okay, aber hätte echt besser sein können.”

Meine Frage handelt vom zweiten Satzglied. Was ist der Unterschied zwischen

“Es hätte besser sein können”, und
“Es könnte besser gewesen sein”

Danke für deine Zeit, und mach weiter so mit diesem tollen Blog!

Victor
Victor

I think schon sounds a lot like “sure”/”surely” in the coloring examples above:
“Ich suche einen neuen Job.”
“Oh, hat dir der alte keine Spaß gemacht?”
“Das schon, aber das Geld war zu wenig.” (That, sure, but the money was…)

“Wo ist denn Marie? Die wollte doch eigentlich um 7 da sein.”
“Ach die kommt schon noch.” (Ah, she will surely still come)

What do you think ?

Paolo
Paolo

“We have reached the top of the mountain.”
Wennschon, dennschon!

Fanny
Fanny

Hello. Thanks for all your help. Somewhere here you say Schon, just like its counterparts in French or Polish for that matter. What word in French are you talking about? thanks again

Simran Sehgal

Could you please tell me if this word schoen can be used to describe interiors? (like beautiful interiors) , will this be correct?
Can it be used as a company name,like — “SCHOEN Interiors” ?
Please reply, as soon as possible….., Thank You !

Anonymous
Anonymous

This was interesting because my name is Schön

Wilson
Wilson

In your Paris question an English speaker would simply answer – Yes, I’ve been there – nothing else needed.

romand

First of all great post – I’m very enjoying reading your posts.

I know Russian, Hebrew and English and it’s interesting to see that many times, at least one of those languages can capture most of the essence of the word ( except maybe doch ). The meaning of already in Hebrew captures most of the meaning ( even the rhetorical one ) of schon. I guess it has to do with Yiddish influence on the modern Hebrew.