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Consider the following exchange:

A: Das Getränk hat dir wohl nicht so gut geschmeckt?
B: Prinzipiell war es schon gut.

I am wondering about the meaning of "schon" in this sentence. Does it relativize the "gut", ie. meaning that the taste was ok but not necessarily great? Or does it object to the previous sentence, ie. meaning that the previous statement was not correct?

6 Answers 6

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The word »schon« in this sentence is a modal particle. Modal particles are very rare in English, and you also don't often see them in written German, but in spoken German they are very frequently used. Modal particles are words that have no grammatical function (like the or and) and they add nothing to the proposition of a sentence. This means: Adding or removing them to or from a sentence does not change that factual meaning. But what modal particles do is adding emotion to a sentence. And German native speakers love to use these words. Here in German.stackexchange are more than 100 questions dealing with modal particles. Read them if you are interested in them.

Two things are very important to know about them:

  1. Every single modal particle that exists in German language has a homonym that is some other kind of word (not a modal particle). So, in your example, do not try to translate »schon« with »already«, because if you do, you interpret »schon« as an adverb, but there is no adverb in »es war schon gut«. There is a modal particle.

  2. The best way to translate modal particles form German to English is to omit them completely in the English translation. If necessary, you can describe the emotion with additional phrases.

    A man orders a drink in a restaurant and he gets it 20 seconds later. Surprised he says:
    Das ging aber schnell. = That was fast!
    Das ging schnell. = That was fast!

    Note, that in »Das ging aber schnell« the word »aber« is not the conjunction »but«. It is a modal particle that has no equivalent in the English language.

    No German native speaker would say »Das ging schnell« in such a situation. This sounds boring and emotionless. But »Das ging aber schnell« contains the surprise that the speaker feels. So, all the emotion, that is contained in the English sentence »that was fast« is contained in the word »aber« in the German version.


Which emotion a modal particle adds to a sentence depends strongly on the context. In your example, person A asks a question that already includes the assumption that person B may not have liked the drink. And person B really didn't like it, but tries to put it diplomatically and politely. So, the main information is this:

Es war gut. = It was good. (It tasted well.)

But Person B puts this statement into perspective with two words (with the adjective prinzipiell and with the modal particle schon):

Prinzipiell war es gut.

»Prinzipiell« is an adjective that is used adverbial (it describes a property of the verb »war«) and it means »in principle« or »basically«. So, »Prinzipiell war es gut« means that the drink was well prepared, and other people might find it good or maybe even excellent, but Person B still was not satisfied for 100%.

Es war schon gut.

Now here we have the modal particle »schon«. It modifies the emotion of »es war gut«. And, as said before, what it means depends strongly on the context. In your example the assumption that is contained in person A's question and the introducing adjective »prinzipiell« in B's answer provide a context, in which no other interpretation is possible than that Person B did not like the drink. And in this context the modal particle »schon« strengthens this meaning: There was nothing wrong with the drink, but person B still didn't like it very much. And person B don't want to lie about it but also don't want to disappoint person A.

In a different context, the word »schon« could have a different meaning:

A: Ich sehe, du hast alles aufgegessen, und aus deinem zufriedenem Blick schließe ich, dass es dir auch geschmeckt hat?
B. Aber Hallo! Mensch, war das schon gut! So was feines habe ich schon lange nicht gegessen.

Translation:

A: I see you ate it all, and from your satisfied look I gather you enjoyed it too?
B: Oh Boy! Man, that was good! I have not eaten something so fine for a long time.

And again the word »schon« has no equivalent in the English translation. But in the German sentence it intensifies the positive feeling that person B wants to transport with their speech. Here, the word »schon« carries a very different emotion than in the sentence of your example. In your example the feeling was some kind of sadness that person B felt because they had to disappoint person A, while in the example given by me, it expresses, that person B feels happy and satisfied.

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  • I know that schon isn't the same as schön, but I think in this case I'd translate it as "pretty": "Basically, it was pretty good." With "pretty good" meaning "good" but not "really good".
    – RDBury
    Jun 4, 2022 at 17:40
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    I disagree with your statement that the sentence with "schon" in OPs example can only be understood to mean that the person did NOT like the food and is trying to be polite about it. To me, it only means that the person has some gripes with it. Also, your usage of "schon" toward the end in the affirmative liking sounds wrong to me (German). Maybe it's an Austrian German thing, but if a student were to say that, I would correct it.
    – Emanuel
    Jun 8, 2022 at 15:37
  • @emanuel I can see it being used as affirmative as in the last example also here in Northern Germany. That implies that the initial example need not be understood negatively, though it is more likely and reinforced by the additional use of 'prinzipiell' Jun 9, 2022 at 8:56
  • @planetmaker really?! So taking out "schon" in the last example makes the sentence sound LESS positive to you? Because the claim is it emphasizes the positivity, which I do NOT agree with. To me, it only makes sense there if there is some doubt to disperse. Maybe the people argued over going to that restaurant before and now one person is thoroughly convinced after eating the food.
    – Emanuel
    Jun 9, 2022 at 9:45
  • @planetmaker I'm not saying it is negative, maybe that was a bit unclear. But I do not agree that it makes the statement stronger in any way.
    – Emanuel
    Jun 9, 2022 at 9:46
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You are right: schon in this particular context relativises gut. It is like saying in English: "It was good, but ...".

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In the given dialogue,

A: Das Getränk hat dir wohl nicht so gut geschmeckt?
B: Prinzipiell war es schon gut.

schon contradicts the expectation expressed by A that B didn't enjoy the drink.

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    That's only part of it. If that was the only thing the speaker wants to do, they'd say "Doch, es war gut"
    – Emanuel
    Jun 8, 2022 at 11:34
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Your hunch is right, that it relativizes the statement somewhat.

"schon" is often used that way. Suppose, you have doubts about a thing. "schon" removes a portion of that doubt, while leaving room/opening the door for other doubts about the same thing.

  • "Are unicorns pretty?"
  • "Yes, they are "schon", but they're also dangerous."

So it is often (not always) followed by a but.

If you want to find out more, I have a detailed article with plenty of examples about it:

https://yourdailygerman.com/meaning-schon/

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"Schon" contradicts the other person's negative question in a downplaying way. The modal particle "schon" transports a "never mind / don't sweat it / it doesn't matter" feeling. Which sometimes is then followed by a "but ..." sentence, but it doesn't have to.

Examples for "schon" as Modalpartikel in this sense:

Es ist schon gut.
Es war eigentlich schon ein ganz guter Vortrag.
Was soll das schon bringen?
Es war schon etwas mühsam, aber wir haben es ja geschafft.

There are other meanings of "schon" as a modal particle, see https://www.dwds.de/wb/schon.

The word "prinzipiell" in the example puts "good" into perspective, and it almost always means that a "but..." is to follow later.

Possible translation of the example:

A: You didn't like the drink much, right?
B: I wouldn't say that. I liked it in principle.

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I think the best way to think of 'schon' in these type of usage as an English speaker is to translate it as the word "rather". Here is how I'd translate:

The drink's wasn't to your taste?

In principle, it was rather good.

There is a bit of ambiguity on how the first part could be translated, but, I am pretty sure this way of seeing it will correctly for most examples you encounter.

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