Word of the Day – “schon”

schon Yo yo yo, ladies and gentlemen,

welcome back to your favorite German learning blog.
And today, we’ll take a good look at the meaning of

schon

Schon is one of the most frequently used words in both written and spoken German. But it’s 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 blogpo.. I mean radioshow. 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 going schon! By the end of this post you’ll be like:
“Oh no, what just happened… I… I’ve been fully explained, oh no, I feel so exposed.”
That’ll teach you!
All right. And now that we’ve pumped up, so let’s get right into it…

And we’ll start with 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). I’m of course talking about schön which many of you probably know as beautiful, nice.
Both words, schon and schön, go back to the hyper-mega-ultra ancient Indo-European root *skeue. The core idea of this root was something like to pay attention or to perceive and it is ALSO the root of the English word to show. And of the bareky thing scone, which once meant fine bread. I think dryne would be more fitting, though.
But anyway, the original idea of schon was beautiful(ly). From there, it first shifted toward satisfying(ly) and from there it took a turn toward the idea of completely and that’s kind of the main meaning it has today.

schon – already and beyond

Because schon is the German word for already. Now you might be like “Wait, already and completely don’t mean the same.” and you’re of course right. But take another look at the word already… it literally means “all is ready”.
And it makes perfect sense to use schon for that. I mean, just look at this dialogue

“420 is ready.”
“Oh, already?! Nice.”

In German, the word for nice basically became the word for already, but it’s not that much of a stretch.
Let’s look at some examples.

  • Ich habe schon gegessen.
  • I already ate.
  • Ich wollte gestern Abend noch einkaufen gehen, aber der Supermarkt war schon zu.
  • I wanted to do groceries last night, but the supermarket was already closed.
  • Marie’s son is only 10 months old and can already talk.
  • Maries Sohn ist erst 10 Monate alt und kann schon sprechen.
  • When the waitress came, I had been waiting already for almost an hour.
  • Als die Kellnerin kam, hatte ich schon fast eine Stunde gewartet.
  • “Are you already leaving?”
    “Yes, it is already midnight and I have to get up early tomorrow.”
  • “Gehst du schon?”
    “Ja, es ist schon Mitternacht und ich muss morgen früh raus.

Now, so far this is pretty straight foward so far, but there’s a couple of pretty important differences.
The first one is when there’s a negative involved. The most common way to say that in English is not yet, but on some occasions not already might work as well. In German, nicht schon NEVER works. The proper phrasings is noch nicht.

  • If you haven’t already seen the movie, go see it!
  • Wenn ihr den Film noch nicht gesehen habt, dann guckt ihn euch an!

The second difference is that schon is a little bit more broad than already.
Here’s an example…

  • Ich habe vergessen, meinem Chef zu sagen, dass das Meeting morgen schon um 5 anfängt.
  • I forgot to tell my boss that the meaning will start already earlier than expected – at 5.

Schon works perfectly fine in this example, but already does not. A common mistake of Germans who speak English, by the way.
The thing is that already kind of needs something there that is actually (being) accomplished…. something that can be “all ready”.
Schon on the other hand (just like its counterparts in French or Polish for that matter) has a much broader, vague sense of accomplishment. Let’s take a short example:

  • Ich gehe morgen schon um 12 nach Hause.

Here, schon indicates that 12 is considered somewhat early either by me, the listener or the general public. 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 basically expresses wow, that is kinda early and it totally depends on the context and personal opinions when this is applicable.
In fact, this is kind of the core of schon. It expresses “Wow, that’s kinda [quite something].” in contexts where there’s a change over time. And as such it’s pretty much the exact opposite of erst, which exresses “wow, that’s not so much (yet).
Here are a few examples…

  • Ich hab’ schon/erst 4 mal angerufen
  • I have called 4 times already.
  • I have called as little as/only 4 times.
  • Ich war um 2 schon/erst zuhause.
  • I was at home at 2 already.
  • It was as late as 2/already 2 when I was home.

  • Ich bin schon/erst 10.
  • I am already 10 (years old).
  • I am only 10.

  • Das Meeting is schon/erst um 11.
  • The meeting is as early as 11.
  • The meeting is not before/as late as 11.

What schon and erst do is basically look at the same statement from two different points of view. The put a fact into a certain perspective, if you want.

That said though… I think for daily life it is safe to just think of schon as already and just keep in mind that schon is a little broader.

Cool.
Now, before we move on to schon as a the weird confusing hard to translate filler, I want to mention two kind of fixed expressions that are going to be really useful: schon mal and schon wieder.

“schon mal” and “schon wieder”

Shut up headline, I just said that!
So, schon wieder actually translates to again. But not just the normal again that talks about repetition. It’s again with an attitude… you know… the all caps AGAIN :)

  • Ich musste heute schon wieder Überstunden machen.
  • I had to work extra hours today… AGAIN!
  • “Papa, Ich muss mal.”
    Schon wieder???”
  • “Daddy, I need to pee.”
    AGAIN???”

Wieder by itself is the neutral again. Schon adds this notion of “wow, that’s kinda early” that we mentioned earlier, while English does all with the voice.
Cool.
The other expression is schon mal and this expresses the idea of already in contexts of “once(or multiple time) before”. And it has a grander scope, it reaches back into the past more, if that makes sense.
Here they are back to back…

  • Das hab’ ich schon mal gehört.
  • I have heard that before.
  • Das hab’ ich schon gehört.
  • I’ve heard that already (so I know it and there is no need to hear it again).

Schon mal is actually also used in questions, and then the English translation changes a bit. The idea is the exact same though, so maybe that helps you get a better graps of schon mal.

  • “Warst du schon mal in Paris?”
    “Ja, war ich schon mal.”
  • “Have you ever been to Paris?”
    “Yes, I’ve been there before/once/already” (I don’t know which one is best).

 

  • “Hast du schon mal eine Diät gemacht?”
    “Ne noch nie.”
  • “Have you ever gone on a diet.”
    “No, never.”

Cool.
So now that we have the more standard schon covered, let’s get to the weird schons. The particle schons, the filler schons that Germans pepper their speech with. And we can distinguish between two use cases: commands and statements.
Let’s start with the commands.

Schon – coloring orders

And there’s good news for all native speakers of American English: schon used in imperative sentences (commands) is not going to be a new concept for you. Schon expresses impatience in those sentences and already is used to the exact same effect.

  • Sag schon!
  • Say it, already!
  • Gib schon!
  • Gimme that 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…

  • Ach, komm schon…!
  • Oh, come on…!

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

  • “Wollen wir ins Kino gehen?”
    “Nee, keinen Bock.”
    “Ach, komm schon!”
  • “Should we go see a movie?”
    “Don’t wanna ”
    “Oh, come on!

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

  • “This movie is great.”
    Oh come on, you know it’s not.”
  • “Dieser Film ist toll”
    Ach hör auf, du weisst, dass er Scheiße ist.”

But anyway… so schon used in giving orders can be anything from encouraging to really pushy.
Now, let’s see what it does in statements.

Schon – coloring statements

The Duden, a German reference for word meaning and spelling, lists up to eight possible meanings for the coloring-schon (check them out here). And eI commend them for it. I think Duden and all the other sources did a pretty good jo… okay of course I am kidding!! Eight SUCKS!!
I think we can capture the essence of schon does to a statement with just two words :

dispersing doubt

Now, we’ll go over various uses and see if we can find this core notion in there.
Sounds good? Then let’s start with the first examples.

  • “Oh Gott, morgen ist Klausur. Ich bin sooooo nervös.”
    “Du schaffst das schon.”
  • “Oh god, tomorrow is the quiz. I am soooo nervous.”
    Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”

  • “Wo ist denn Marie? Die wollte doch eigentlich um 7 da sein.”
    “Ach die kommt schon noch.”
  • “Where is Marie? She wanted to be here at 7, I think.”
    “Oh she is going to come, don’t worry.”

  • Du machst das schon.
  • You’ll do fine/beautifully.

    (nice tie in with the original sense of schon, by the way)

Here, schon adds kind of the same reassuring effect – it is essentially used to disperse doubt that the person might have. So far, the theory seems to work.
Let’s keep testing…

  • “Das sieht komisch aus… schreibt man das so?
    “Ja ja, das ist schon richtig so.”
  • “That looks odd… is it spelled like that?”
    Don’t worry it is fine that way.”

  • “Soll ich dir beim Tragen helfen?”
    “Ne ne, geht schon.”
  • “Do you want me to help you carry that?”
    “No no, don’t worry, it’s ok.

  • (Someone just fell with his bike)
    “Hey alles ok, bist du verletzt?”
    “Nee, geht schon.”
  • “Hey everything all right, are you hurt?”
    “No, I’m ok.”

 

Again, in all these examples, schon tries to actively disperse a doubt the other person has. We’ve seen “Don’t worry” a lot in the translations but there’s also a vibe of “Let it go.” or “It’s fine.”

  • “Und wie is’ die Suppe”
    “Naja, geht schon, is’ schon ganz lecker.”
  • “So, how’s the soup?”
    “Meh, it‘s fine, it is tasty, all right.”

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.
So far, there seems to indeed by a common theme.
But what about examples like this, where the Duden for example says that the schon sounds skeptical and sets up a but.

  • “Ich suche einen neuen Job.”
    “Oh, hat dir der alte keinen Spaß gemacht?”
    “Das schon, aber das Geld war zu wenig.”
  • “I am looking for a new job.”
    “Oh, did you not like the other one.”
    “No no I did like it ok, but the money wasn’t enough.”

But if you look at it really closely, it doesn’t “set up” the but, it just leaves room for it. The schon reaffirms the first bit, the bit about the fun. Like… “oh, don’t worry it wasn’t the lack of fun that made me quit.
Here’s a similar example…

  • “Wollen wir was essen?”
    “Auf keinen Fall.”
    “Hast du etwa keinen Hunger?”
    Doch, schon, aber ich mache grade Diät.”
  • “Should we eat something?”
    “No way.”
    “But aren’t you hungry?”
    I am. But I am on a diet right now.”

And again, schon disperses the doubt about one thing, while leaving room for a but.
Cool.
Now, there’s a couple more uses that I want to address real quick.
The first one is schon in rhetorical questions.

  • Thomas? Was will der schon machen?
  • Thomas? What is HE gonna do? as in: (Thomas? He can’t do anything.)
  • Ich könnte sie ja anrufen, aber was bringt das schon?
  • I could call her, but what would THAT accomplish? (as in: Nothing.)
  • Wen interessiert das schon?
  • Who cares?
  • Wer hat schon so viel Zeit?
  • Who on earth has time for that?

In questions like these, schon implies that the answer to the question is: nothing or no one. And so once again we have the dispersing doubt notion at work. 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.

The other “specific” type of statement are affirmative questions, so sentences that are statements by shape, but they’re actually meant as a question.
And schon can be used in these, as well.

  • Du kommst SCHON morgen, oder? (schon gets emphasized here)
  • You WILL come tomorrow, right?
  • Du hast SCHON einen Führerschein, oder?
  • You DO have a license, right?

As you can see, schon actually gets an emphasis here, and it’s basically a signal that you’re pretty sure of your statement. Like… it’s a bit like double checking, and would be really surprised if the answer was no. I just want affirmation of what I already consider to be a fact.
Now, some of you might be like “Wait, wasn’t affirmatin seeking the core of doch?”
And you’re totally right about that. In these kinds of sentences the two words are really close.
But there is a difference in tone.

  • Du hast doch einen Führerschein, oder?
  • Du hast SCHON einen Führerschein, oder?

Schon sounds waaaaaay more convinced here. It almost affirms itself (because it has doubt dispersing powers) while doch is yearning for affirmation because it is just not sure. Let me try to capture that in English.

  • You have a license, don’t you?
  • Come on, don’t tell me don’t have a license.

That’s not the real translation, it’s just the vibe.
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 three?
I did, so this is a bonus. Bonusses are awesome… hooray :).
So… the last situation in which schon is very common looks like this:

  • Wenn du schon zu spät kommst, dann ruf wenigstens an.
  • If you are going to be late, then at the very least call me.
  • Wenn ich schon eine Liebeskomödie sehen muss, dann bitte eine richtig schmalzige.
  • If, by all means, I really have to watch a romantic comedy, then please make it a really schmaltzy one.

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.

  • Wenn ich das schon machen muss, dann will ich aber auf jeden Fall das und das.
  • If I really have to do it, and there seems no way around, then I definitely want this and that.

So … does that tie in with the dispersing doubt idea? Well, kind of.
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.
And if that doesn’t make sense to you, you can also look at this kind of schon as an already. Like… not literally, but the idea. If it is settled/comlete that have to watch the comedy, then at least I want to drink beer.

That actually kind of ties the whole idea of dispersing doubt in with the “normal” meaning of schon.… a sense of “it is settled”.
And that’s also where we’ll wrap this up, because… we’re done. Wohooo.
I really hope you got a better understanding of schon and saw that it’s not all that confusing, after all.
And don’t worry if you don’t remember everything … you’ll pick it up over time. The main takeaways are that it can mean already, it’s used to disperse doubt and it’s nothing to be scared of :).
If you want to test your understanding a bit and recap, you can take the little quiz I have prepared. And of course if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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