Word of the Day – “schon”

schonYo 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 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.

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.

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

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:

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…

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.

Now, before we move on to schonas 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 againthat talks about repetition. It’s again with an attitude… you know… the all caps 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.
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…

Schon malis 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.


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 alreadyis used to the exact same effect.

  • Sag schon!
  • Say it, already!

I am not sure as to how strong adding already is in this context but schoncan 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 schonis 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.
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 schondoes 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.

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…


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.”

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.

But if you look at it really closely, it doesn’t “set up” the but, it just leaves room for it. The schonreaffirms 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…

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

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.

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.

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 schonversion 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:

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, 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.


Oh … and if you need to chill out now… here is a song that I find really relaxing … enjoy

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