How Can You Use the German Word "Schon"?

You will come across the word "schon" very often. Better get to know it quickly.

Athlete with trace of blue smoke
German Vocab can become pretty fuzzy-Everything you need to know about the word "schon". Henrik Sorensen-Stone@getty-images

"Schon" (click for pronunciation) like most other words in German has more than one meaning. I'm sure by now you know the difference between schon (see rest of this article) and schön (beautiful). Although they share a common past. Although we mentioned some uses of schon in our previous article on 'Doch' and Other Tricky Words, here we'll go into schon in much more depth.

Sometimes schon doesn't mean anything at all - at least not anything that can be simply translated by a single English word.

It may add emphasis, indicate impatience, or just be a filler. We call those words "modal particles" (read only the first few pages of that pdf until page 185) But in general the German word schon has over a dozen different meanings or functions. Translated into English, schon can become any of these English words: already, as early as, before, even, just, now, okay, quite, really, very, yes-but, yet. Let's look at the many meanings of schon.

SCHON 1 (bereits - already)

This is the most common meaning and the one that beginners usually learn first. But even in the basic meaning of "already," schon is often not translated into English. In some of the following examples, English either ignores schon or uses a word other than "already":

  • Ich hab' dir das schon zweimal gesagt.
    I've already told you that twice.
  • Haben Sie das schon gelesen?
    Have you read that already?
  • Sie ist schon da!
    She's here (already).
  • Schon im 15. Jahrhundert...
    As early as the 15th century...
  • Ich warte schon seit Wochen.
    I've been waiting for weeks now.

SCHON 2 (schon einmal/schon mal - before)

This expression with schon usually means "before," as in "I've heard that before."

  • Ich hab' das schon mal gehört.
    I've heard that before.
  • War er schon einmal dort?
    Has he ever been there (before)?

    The phrase "schon wieder" (=again) works in a similar way:

    • Da ist er schon wieder.
      There he is again./He's back again.
    • Was? Schon wieder?
      What? Again?

    SCHON 3 (in Fragen - yet/ever)

    In a question, schon may be translated as English "yet" or "ever." But sometimes it is left untranslated.

    • Bist du schon fertig?
      Are you finished yet?
    • Kommt er schon heute?
      Is he coming today?
    • Waren Sie schon dort?
      Have you ever been there?/Have you been there (yet)?
    • Musst du schon gehen?
      Do you have to go so soon?

    SCHON 4 (allein/bloß - just)

    Using schon with a noun or adverb sometimes conveys the idea of "only" or "just."

    • Schon der Gedanke macht mich krank.
      Just the thought (alone) makes me ill.
    • Schon die Tatsache, dass er...
      Just the fact that he...
    • Schon deswegen...
      If only because of that...

    SCHON 5 (bestimmt - all right/don't worry)

    Schon used with the future tense can convey the idea of encouragement, certainty, or lack of doubt:

    • Du wirst es schon machen.
      You'll do it, for sure/don't worry.
    • Er wird schon sehen.
      He'll see (all right).
    • Ich werde schon aufpassen.
      I'll watch out all right/okay.

    SCHON 6 (allerdings/tatsächlich - really/quite)

    Sometimes schon can be used as an intensifier meaning "quite," "really," or "rather."

    • Das ist ja schon teuer!
      That is really expensive!
    • Das ist schon etwas!
      That's really something!
    • ...und das schon gar nicht!
      ...and most certainly not that!
    • Das ist schon möglich.
      That's quite possible.

    SCHON 7 (ungeduldig - do!/come on!)

    In commands, schon conveys the idea of urgency. In other cases, it can indicate impatience or encouragement.

    • Beeil dich schon!
      Do (please) hurry up!
    • Geh schon!
      Go on!/Do get a move on!
    • Wenn doch schon...
      If only...
    • Ich komme ja schon!
      (Just hold on to your hat,) I'm coming!

    SCHON 8 (einschränkend - yes, but)

    Schon can indicate reservations, uncertainty, or limitations. In such cases, the schon phrase is usually followed by aber.

    • Berlin ist ja schon eine schöne Stadt, aber...
      Sure, Berlin is a beautiful city, but...
    • Da haben Sie schon Recht, aber...
      Yes, you're right, but...
    • Das schon, aber...
      That well may be, but...

    SCHON 9 (rhetorische Fragen - right?)

    When schon is used in a rhetorical question with an interrogative (wer, was), it implies a negative answer or doubts that the answer is true.

    • Wer wird mir schon helfen?
      Nobody's going to help me, right?
    • Was sind schon 10 Euro heute? Nichts!
      What's 10 euro these days? Nothing!
    • Aber wer fragt schon danach?
      But nobody really wants to know, right?

    SCHON 10 (als Füllwort - as a filler)

    In some German idiomatic expressions, schon is just a filler that sounds good and is usually not translated into English.

    • Schon gut!
      Okay! All right!
    • Wir werden schon sehen.
      We'll see (about that).
    • Ich verstehe schon.
      I understand./I get it.
    • Danke, es geht schon.
      Thanks, I'll/we'll manage okay.

    SCHON 11 (fast gleichzeitig - in a flash/there and then)

    Used in some idiomatic phrases, schon has the meaning of "immediately" or "right away."

    • ...und schon war er weg!
      ...and he was gone in a flash!
    • Kaum bin ich angekommen, schon ging der Krach los.
      I had scarcely arrived when all hell broke loose.

    SCHON 12 ( bedingt - if-phrases)

    Used in a wenn-phrase, schon has a conditional, idiomatic meaning, usually implying "if so, then do it right" or "then go ahead."

    • Wenn du das schon machen willst, dann mache es wenigstens richtig!
      If you want to do that, then at least do it right!
    • Wenn du schon rauchen musst...
      If you really must smoke... (then go ahead)
    • Wennschon, dennschon!
      You might as well go whole hog!/In for a penny, in for a pound!

    This concludes my trip into the world of endless meanings or non-meaning for a single word. As you might have realized, it is crucial to learn each word in its context. Vocabulary lists can only be a rough guide through the vast jungle of German semantics. Don't try to learn these all at once. Now you at least might faintly remember having heard a meaning of "schon" when you encounter it in an unusual situation. 

    Original articles by Hyde Flippo.

    Edited 24th of June 2015 by Michael Schmitz