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Dann kann ich jetzt endlich was abarbeiten.

I think I understand this sentence except for the use of was:

Now I can finally work.

But I can’t determine how the was changes either the meaning or the tone of the sentence.

Is it a modal particle here? Or does it actually change the meaning from what I think this means?

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Just a general remark... "was" is never a modal particle... it's always either a question word or short for "etwas" – Emanuel Sep 4 '14 at 13:29
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Was is short for etwas (something) here and is the required object for abarbeiten. Thus the sentence means

Now I can finally work some things off.

or more freely:

Now I can finally get some work done.

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Ah! I'll have to look out for this in the future. I always see was as what. Thanks! – Martin Sep 4 '14 at 14:15

Addition to the given answer: "was" as abbreviation for "etwas" is mainly colloquially used. See also

In professional writing you should better avoid it (citations and direct speech excluded), if not the overall writing style is colloquial and thus "demands" it.

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In this example, was is an abbreviation of etwas. So it's a normal object, not a modal particle.

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