Erst vs. SchonWhat's the difference?


💡Quick Answer

Use erst when something is happening (or has happened) later than expected. Use schon when something has happened earlier than expected.

Erst & schon are both adverbs and seem to be used in very similar contexts. Luckily, the differences between the two words are actually pretty straightforward.

The difference between erst & schon

1. How to use "erst"

The contexts where students usually get confused when it's about "erst" vs. "schon" have to do with time:

Ich bin jetzt erst zuhause angekommen! Ich werde mich verspäten.

I've only now arrived home! I will be late.

In these contexts, "erst" is often translated with "only" in English. This makes sense for a lot of situations, but be careful to not just memorize this without understanding the context.

You need to understand the intention behind using "erst": "Erst" expresses that X has happened or is going to happen later than expected:

Pssst! Wie löse ich Aufgabe 5?
Weiß ich nicht! Ich bin erst bei Aufgabe 2!

Here, Peter is getting a bit nervous, because he hadn't expected to only be at exercise no. 2 by this point in time.

2. How to use "schon"

The adverb "schon" takes on the opposite meaning of "erst":

Unser Zug kam viel früher an als erwartet. Wir sind schon um 5 Uhr im Hotel angekommen!

Our train came much earlier than expected. We already arrived at the hotel at 5 o'clock.

In English we would most often translate "schon" in these contexts with "already":

Was? Du bist erst bei Aufgabe 2? Ich bin schon fast fertig!
Du hast ja auch schon vor einem Monat angefangen zu lernen!