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The Complete Guide to Korean Grammar

Do you think of grammar as the bane of your Korean language learner existence?

You shouldn’t! Like any difficult puzzle when it’s broken down, Korean grammar can be very approachable.

Here, I’ll be touching upon all the different aspects of Korean grammar and also provide helpful detailed guides for each.

Contents

How Difficult is Korean Grammar?

I won’t lie: Korean grammar is significantly different from English grammar, and so it presents a few unique challenges that will take some time to overcome.

But I can promise that once you learn the basic rules, things will stay pretty logical and consistent. Compare this to the wild inconsistencies in English grammar–if you can write English sentences, you can absolutely learn to write Korean sentences (perhaps even quicker than you’d expect).

Another thing to remember is that Korean is an agglutinative language. This means that Korean words are made up of separable parts, which are combined to form distinct concepts or ideas. On the other hand, English is a mix of agglutinative and fusional.

We’ll be going over exactly what distinguishes Korean grammar.

Korean Sentence Structure

Basic Korean sentences follow a Subject-Object-Verb order. The subject is the “doer” of an action, the verb is said action, and the object is the “recipient” of the action.

For example, if you were to write “I eat cake” in Korean, it would literally be written out as “I cake eat.” So, whenever you analyze a Korean sentence, you should expect the verb near or at the very end.

Like in English, Korean sentences don’t always need an object. In these cases, sentences just follow a simple Subject-Verb order.

Some sentences don’t even involve a subject. You could have an understandable Korean phrase using just a verb, with or without adjectives or adverbs. Context will be necessary to work out the full meaning.

Korean Particles

We’re not talking about things under a microscope! Korean particles are a critical grammatical component that are essential to deciphering any sentence’s meaning.

In short, a particle is an addition to a word (usually a suffix) that marks its function within a sentence. It can also suggest features of the word, such as if a noun is singular or plural or what tense is being used.

Particles, therefore, basically act as markers within a sentence that tell you what is what.

There are many Korean particles, but there are around 20 that are the most commonly used and necessary to learn.

Korean Nouns

A noun is a person, place or thing, whether it’s something you can physically touch or something you can only imagine. The Korean word for noun is 명사 .

Here are a few examples of what can be considered a noun:

In Korean sentences, nouns can appear in two major ways. They can just appear in their regular format “unconjugated,” or they can come bearing those all-important particles. These particles act as distinguishable subject and or object markers.

Important to note: noun plurality isn’t really a thing in Korean! In English, we can often tell if there is more of a noun by adding “s” at its end (ex. one apple to two apples). However, in Korean, there often isn’t a way to specify if a noun is singular or plural.

You could add a particle (들) to be clear that you’re talking about multiple things, but this isn’t truly necessary, as context (it really is the master here) will clear things up.

Korean Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that can substitute for a noun. In English, pronouns are words like “I,” “you,” “he” and “they.”

Thankfully, unlike many other foreign languages (and even English), there are no gender-specific pronouns. In other words, Korean pronouns can be used by anyone of any gender, no real need to distinguish pronouns for a “she” and a “he.”

Furthermore, a Korean personal pronoun wouldn’t change whether you’re talking about a subject or object. In English, “I” and “me” are the first-person pronouns used when speaking of the subject and object, respectively. In Korean, the only difference would be in the particle.

However, pronouns are differentiated by formality. How polite you are, and who you’re talking to, affects your choice of pronouns. For example:

In truth, pronouns aren’t used nearly as often in Korean as in English. Much of casual Korean speech eliminates the subject of sentences, so context fills in the blanks to determine who is being talked about. Alternatively, full names or titles are commonly used instead of pronouns, even if you’re talking directly to whoever you’re talking about!

Korean Verbs

A verb is a word that describes an action, state or occurrence. In Korean, a verb is known as 동사 .

Korean verbs can remain in their infinitive “dictionary form” (ending in 다) or become conjugated to take on specific implications.

Conjugations

The basic rule of Korean verb conjugation is to take the stem of the verb in its infinitive form and give it a new ending.

Verb conjugations don’t differentiate by first, second or third person POVs. Most verb conjugations are regular, so you don’t have to worry too much about weird irregularities.

But you do have to consider formality, again! Depending on how formal you are, a verb may gain a different ending. For example:

Verb conjugation can get a little tricky, but we do have a more in-depth guide on how to approach the basics.

Tenses

The ending given to a verb stem also indicates the tense being used. Tense is a method of expressing time using verbs.

There are luckily only three tenses in Korean: past, present and future. Compare this to English’s whopping 12!

  • Past tense – describes things that happened/existed at a previous point in time
  • Present tense – describes things that are currently happening
  • Future tense – describes things that will or are expected to happen later on

The progressive and perfect tenses too can be implied using the tenses above. Context again will be key to figuring out the exact meaning.

This means that overall, there are less conjugation rules to remember.

Negatives

Negating a sentence means to suggest its meaning is false or incorrect. A common way we do so in English is by using words like “no” and “not.”

Negating sentences in Korean is a bit more nuanced. There are a variety of negation expressions that can be used, depending on what exactly is being negated. Plus, instead of just singular words, you may have to use a negating suffix (its conjugation influenced by formality, of course) that you’ll attach to the verb or adjective stem.

In most cases, these negation terms will appear near the end of sentences. If there’s really anything to remember about Korean sentences, it’s to make sure that you listen to them in their entirety!

No specific post that covers negation in detail (at least, in my research)

The Basic Verbs

If there are any verbs to immediately learn, before any others, it would be the ones listed below.

These basic verbs are critical to know for very simple conversations. They will constantly make an appearance in some form. By knowing them, you’re more likely to navigate through many day-to-day situations.

Remember, these verbs are presented in their dictionary forms, meaning that they can face conjugation.

Korean Adjectives

Adjectives, known as 형용사 in Korean, describe nouns. But in reality, Korean adjectives are essentially verbs in disguise.

Adjectives are made by transforming verbs into descriptive words. You take the infinitive form of the verb, chop off the 다 at the end (and more, for some), and replace it with either 은 (if it ends in a consonant) or ㄴ (if it ends in a vowel). For example:

  • Short = (짧다 (to be short) – 다) + 은 = 짧은
  • Sad = (슬퍼하다 (to be sad) – 하다) + ㄴ = 슬픈
  • Fast = (빠르다 (to be fast) – 다) + ㄴ = 빠른

As in English, these verbs-turned-adjectives tend to go before the described noun(s). You can also have verbs-turned-adjectives (which are typically less modified) go after the noun, usually preceding some conjugation of the “to be” 이다 verb.

It’s common for adjectives to be near the end of sentences.

Korean Adverbs

An adverb is a word that describes a verb, another adverb or an adjective. They can clarify how, where and when something is done.

The Korean word for adverb is 부사 . In Korean sentences, adverbs will typically come before the verb it’s describing. They don’t have to be directly beside the modified word either. So long as it just precedes the verb, an adverb can be placed pretty freely in a sentence.

As in English, you can transform Korean adjectives into adverbs by adding specific endings. There are some adverbs that aren’t derived this way and just exist as such.

Adverbs of Frequency

Adverbs of frequency are called 빈도 부사 in Korean. These are words that describe how often something occurs, answering the question of “How often” and “How many times”. Examples of Korean adverbs of frequency are:

Adverbs of Place

Adverbs of place are called 장소 부사 in Korean. These describe the “where” of an action, its general placement and locale. They include:

Adverbs of Time

Adverbs of time are called 시간 부사 . They clarify when and for how long something happened, such as:

Adverbs of Manner

Adverbs of manner are 양태 부사 . These tell the way in which something is done, like:

Prepositions

Prepositions are words that show a noun’s relationship to other words of a sentence. They typically detail things such as spatial position, direction and time.

A few Korean prepositions are:

Korean prepositions actually appear after nouns, and they come with specific suffixes. This is quite different from English, which usually has prepositions placed before nouns.

For this reason, Korean prepositions are really more postpositions.

If you want to learn more about how prepositions are used in context, you could check out the language learning platform FluentU.

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Conjunctions

Conjunctions are connecting words. They put together sentences and clauses and build relationships between them. In English, these are words like “and,” “or” and “but.”

Some of the most commonly used Korean conjunctions include:

But there’s a catch. Korean conjunctions are a bit more sophisticated. For some conjunctions, there are actually multiple ways to write it out, depending on what’s being related. Sometimes, the conjunctive term appears as a suffix attached to verb stems, such as:

To give an example of how these two methods work for the conjunction “and”:

Some conjunctions can have more implications as well, especially when verbs or activities are being connected. For example, 그리고 does mean “and,” but it also suggests “and then,” thereby suggesting a sequence.

Contractions

Contractions are shorter ways of writing out words. They help to make speech quicker and easier.

Because of its phoneme flexibility, the Korean language makes liberal use of contractions, for both noun and verbal phrases. As in English, it involves mashing phonemes together to cut down the number of syllables, like so:

Contractions are peppered all throughout informal speech, but they make frequent appearances in formal speech as well. After all, who would resist a shortcut? It’s probable that you may accidentally shorten any two words into one (if phonemically possible) and you’d still be understood.

Exclamations & Interjections

These are the fun words you say (or more often, shout) as a response to something that affects you. These include words like “Wow,” “Ouch” and “Yikes.”

The Korean language has a bunch of fun exclamations and interjections. They can be used to succinctly express how you feel, without the need for entire phrases or sentences.

There are several common Korean interjections that are derived from English, making them “Konglish.”

Here are a few popular ones:

Knowing exclamations and interjections is a very helpful (arguably necessary) skill for casual social contexts, whether in-person or online.

Asking Questions

In most cases, you’ll need to use interrogative pronouns (the 5 W’s in English) so that a question in Korean is defined as such. In their standard forms, they are:

In a sentence, these interrogative pronouns don’t actually have to sit in any one position. You can have them start off questions or shove them close to the very end of the inquiry.

For very basic “yes or no” questions, these interrogative pronouns may not be necessary. You could just have conjugations of the verb, then raise your intonation into a questioning tone.

Guess what else is going to make an impact on questions? Formality, of course! namely, in determining if certain particles should be added)

Numbers

There are two number systems in Korean: Sino-Korean and native Korean.

Each one is used in different contexts. In general, native Korean numbers are used for easily countable purposes up to number 99 (including biological ages, people in a group, quantity of objects in front of you, etc.). Sino-Korean numbers are used for numbers above 100 and for things that come in larger quantities, including money, minutes, addresses and so on.

It’s important that you learn both, since you’ll use one or the other depending on the situation. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy to learn since they follow predictable patterns.

https://www.fluentu.com/blog/korean/korean-numbers-how-to-count-in-korean/

Punctuation

Punctuation is used in Korean, much like how it’s used in English.

One special punctuation mark that Korean utilizes is known as 가운뎃점 (·) or the “middle dot.” It’s used somewhat like the comma to separate items in a list, but it’s also used for important dates.

Another important thing: there’s no need to worry about capitalization in Korean! With the Hangul alphabet, there isn’t such a thing as upper- or lower-case letters.

How to Study Korean Grammar

So, now you’re wondering how to study Korean grammar — one great method is to do it the old-fashioned way, by buying a notebook and filling it up with very good notes.

There’s well-documented evidence showing that our short-term memories are much shorter in a second language than in our first. This is why we need to revise and practice new vocabulary and grammar rules so often.

There are a range of textbooks and study materials that can help you structure your grammar studies, but it’s also important to study and review grammar in context by talking to native speakers and consuming authentic content. This can be anything from Korean dramas to k-pop songs.

The following posts will help you form a nice collection of resources and tips to help you study grammar in Korean:

 

Grammar is the art of making understandable sentences. Becoming familiar with its rules is critical for your Korean language proficiency.

Sure, it’s not the most fun thing to study in-depth, but doing so will get you huge results that will make all the frustrations worth it.

So don’t shy away from Korean grammar. Face it head-on and show it who’s boss!

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