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Today in the class I heard German guy saying: "Ist der Platz schon frei?". Which supposedly means "Is this place already available/free?" and that makes no sense to me. What's the meaning of "schon" (or what meaning is it used in) in everyday German?

Important thing I didn't mention: The place was free all the time, but the person who came to take it was not aware of the fact and there were no indications of someone else having that place reserved.

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1. "der Platz" not "das Platz". 2. Why do you think it doesn't make sense? Because it does make sense, provided someone has been there before but now left. Much more likely you will here "Ist der Platz noch frei?" Note, in German it's common to ask whether a seat is free, not - as in English - whether a seat is taken. –  Em1 Apr 16 '13 at 21:08
    
@Em1, 1) Corrected the gender. 2) Cause the "already" part makes it sound weird. –  Denys S. Apr 16 '13 at 21:55
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"Ist der Platz schon frei" sounds very strange to me in the context you describe. I'm guessing he started to say "Ist der Platz schon besetzt?" and changed his mind mid-sentence. –  elena Apr 17 '13 at 7:38
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4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Is there a possibility that you misheard your classmate? Maybe what he actually said was something along the lines of

Der Platz ist schon frei, oder? [Emphasis on "schon", rather than "frei".]

This is a very common (if colloquial) use of "schon" as a particle in questions and has nothing to with the meaning "already". It expresses that the asker is pretty sure that his assumption is correct. An English equivalent would be

This seat isn't taken, is it? [With a heavy emphasis on the "isn't".]

Canoo has a short entry on "Abtönungspartikeln", aka "Würzwörter" or "Modalpartikeln". These little words allow the speaker to express expectation or his attitude. "Würzwörter" is an excellent name for them, because they are often what makes a sentence idiomatic, like the pinch of salt that rounds off a dish.
However, like with salt, it's sometimes difficult to find the right dosage: non-native speakers sometimes try too hard and sprinkle their sentences with them too freely. A very dear American friend of mine speaks almost flawless German - but her overuse of "ja" in virtually every sentence gives her away. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to really get the usage of these particles right for non-natives.

Note: The Wikipedia article on Modalpartikeln is not complete. It fails to mention this rather colloquial meaning of "schon"; it only lists:

 "schon -- Negierung der eigenen Wichtigkeit an einer Sache: „Was kann 
 ich da schon ausrichten?“

Also, have a look at what Emanuel writes in his blog -- as far as I can see, he covers pretty much every instance of "schon" :)

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In the sentence as it stands "schon" has the meaning of "already".
If it would be "Der Platz ist schon frei?" it could have the meaning of "The place is free, isn't it"

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The German sentence as it is conveys the following information:

The place has been occupied before. It was obvious that it would be available at some point. It looks available now. The speaker wants to know whether it is or not. The speaker thinks that "now" is somewhat unexpectedly early for the place to be available. Maybe the speaker did expect the place to be available 10 minutes later.

Schon can do that. Already, while pretty similar, carries a notion of completion that doesn't always make sense with a schon-situation. Does it make sense in the example of the OP? I can't tell. I'm not a native speaker of English but if they say "already" doesn't make sense, then it really doesn't make sense to them no matter how obvious a German thinks it is.

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The translation is correct. You might ask this if the place was used, occupied, reserved, cleaned etc before, and you want to know if it now available.

Of course you can simply ask "ist der Platz frei?", but with "schon" you are indicating that you are aware that it was used otherwise. I could imagine that this makes the situation a little bit less awkward if the place is not free, as it is clear that no explanation is needed.

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