erst vs. schonWhat's the difference?

The difference between nur, erst and schon is not easy to grasp. You might think those words can be used interchangably, but there are subtle differences to attend to! Let''s find out!

💡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 <Highlight>erst</Highlight> 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:

Olaf & Peter sitzen in einer Prüfung und flüstern ...
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 <Highlight>schon</Highlight> 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!


If you'd like to, you can try yourself at this exercise now. You will have to decide whether to use "erst" or "schon" for each sentence.

Good luck! 🍀

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