Sometimes, the best things come in small packages.
That’s certainly the case with Korean particles!
You’ve surely heard of Korean nouns, verbs and adjectives, but have you heard of these powerful little Korean particles?
If not, you should get familiar with them because they’re going to be very important to your trajectory as a Korean language learner.
They’ll come up over and over because practically every Korean sentence has them.
You can’t really call yourself fluent in the language if you don’t breathe Korean particles. They’re that important.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve memorized a thousand verbs and 10 thousand nouns. You’re going to need particles to animate your Korean sentences.
Today, we’ll talk about six of the most common, useful particles in the language.
But first, let’s talk about what particles actually are!
What Are Korean Particles?
Particles themselves may be small, but, ironically, the topic of Korean particles is a rather big one. That’s because Korean particles is a catch-all term.
In English, you have different terms like prepositions, possessives, negation, conjunctions, counters and words that denote time, place, intensity, frequency or contrast. These subjects belong to different chapters in an English grammar textbook.
In Korean, they’re all lumped together as Korean particles and strung one after the other in a series that takes a language learner’s breath away.
Depending on who you ask and how you count, there are more than 100 particles in the language. In a Korean sentence, if the word isn’t a noun, verb or adjective, then it’s most likely a particle.
Realistically, there are around 20 Korean particles in common usage. You’ll find them after nouns. Here’s the thing: Korean nouns can’t live without particles. They always need a particle by their side.
Think of particles like tags, or labels, suffixed to words. You usually check what comes after a noun to understand what that noun is all about.
It’s like if you heard the number “two.” You’d be wondering, “Two, what?” But, if somebody follows it with “o’clock,” you’ll understand that the number refers to time.
Particles act as indicators, or markers.
There are so many of them because they can indicate or mark practically anything… for any purpose!
A particle can indicate many things. Here are a few examples of what particles can tell you:
“This noun right here beside me is the subject of the sentence.”
“Hey, this one right here is the object of the sentence. It gets acted upon, see?”
“This noun is related to this other noun over there.”
“This is the location of the speaker.”
“Hey, look, the apple is on the table.”
Korean particles identify, modify, qualify and distinguish nouns and their function in a sentence.
Particles are so effective at communicating meaning that you could even change a sentence’s word order and still understand what’s being said. Because nouns carry their identifying particles with them, you can place a noun anywhere and, because of the particle, you’ll still know, “Yup, that’s the object of the sentence.”
In fact, you often don’t even need to mention the subject in the sentence because everything else is so delineated by particles that you know exactly what’s being talked about.
Now, let’s break down six of the most useful Korean particles!
The 6 Most Common Korean Particles and How to Use Them
1. Topic Particle: 은 and 는
A topic particle tells everyone what’s being talked about. Any noun followed by 은 (eun) or 는 (neun) is being emphasized and elevated as the topic of conversation.
은 and 는 are the same. 은 (eun) is used if the noun preceding it ends in a consonant, and 는 (neun) is used for nouns that end in a vowel. This is for ease of pronunciation. Don’t believe me? Try switching the rules!
For example, 책 (chaeg), which means “book,” and 집 (jip), which means “house,” both end in consonants, so we use 은 for them:
책은 무겁다. (Chaeg-eun mu-geob-dda.) — The book is heavy.
집은 크다. (Jib-eun keu-da.) — The house is big.
On the other hand, 저 (jeo), the polite form of the Korean “I,” ends with the vowel ㅓ(eo). So, we use 는 (neun) with it.
When you want to talk about yourself, you say 저는 (Jeo-neun), which means “I am.”
저는 미국인이에요. (Jeo-neun mi-gu-gi-ni-e-yo.) — I’m American.
저는 한국말을 못 합니다. (Jeo-neun han-gung-ma-reul mo-tam-ni-da.) — I don’t speak Korean.
저는 스물네 살입니다. (Jeo-neun seu-mul-ne sal-im-ni-da.) — I’m 24 years old.
Again, marking the noun with 은 or 는 serves to highlight the topic of the conversation. So, in the above examples, when you’re saying that you’re American or that you’re 24 years old, you’re elevating yourself to the topic of conversation. When somebody else introduces a noun with the topic marker, then it changes the focus of the conversation.
Another thing to know about the topic marker is that it implies a contrast. In the above example, when you say 집은 크다 (Jib-eun keu-da), which means “the house is big,” you’re contrasting the house to other things. You’re implying that the house is big and that other things aren’t big.
So, besides the actual statement, the topic marker also conveys an unspoken contrast.
2. Subject Particle: 이 and 가
Another very important Korean particle is one that helps us identify the subject of the sentence.
Here, the subject is often in relation to the verb or adjective. The marker helps answer the following questions:
- Who is the doer of the action?
- Who/what is being described?
The subject particle is either 이 (i) or 가 (ga). They’re basically the same thing. We use 이 when the preceding noun ends in a consonant and 가 when the noun ends in a vowel.
For example, we use 가 after a noun like 날씨 (nal-ssi), which means “weather,” because it ends in a vowel. And, we use 이 for nouns like 가방 (ga-bang), which means “bag” and ends with a consonant.
날씨가 좋다. (Nal-ssi-ga jo-ta.) — The weather is nice.
가방이 낡았다. (Ga-bang-i nal-ga-dda.) — The bag is old.
As you can see, the subject particle marks the noun that acts as the subject of the sentence. Unlike topic particles that imply contrast, subject particles don’t infer beyond what’s actually said. So, in the example above, when you say that a bag is old, it’s exactly just that. You’re not implying that some other thing isn’t old. It’s a simple statement about the bag and nothing more.
In addition to marking the subject, 이 and 가 are also used when you want to say that you have something. For example, if you want to communicate that you have a ball or a dog, you’d say:
저는 공이 있어요. (Jeo-neun gong-i-i-ssuh-yo.) — I have a ball.
저는 개가 있어요. (Jeo-neun gae-ga i-ssuh-yo.) — I have a dog.
이 and 가 immediately follow the thing that you have.
Language learners often have a hard time deciding between a topic particle and a subject particle. That’s because they can pretty much be used in the same places. There are plenty of cases where a topic and subject particle are both correct and the meaning of the sentence is unaffected no matter which you use.
But there are also times when topic and subject particles bring different nuances or subtleties to a statement. We’ve already talked about how topic particles imply a contrast while a subject particle doesn’t. They also differ in where they direct the focus of the sentence. For example:
나는 파리를 죽였다. (Na-neun pa-ri-reul ju-gyuh-dda.) — I killed the fly.
내가 파리를 죽였다. (Nae-ga pa-ri-reul ju-gyuh-dda.) — I killed the fly.
Both sentences generally mean the same thing. But in the first one, with the topic particle, the focus is on the verb. So, the emphasis is on the action. (What did I do? I killed the fly.)
In the second sentence, the spotlight is on the subject. (Who did it? Who killed the fly? It was me! I did it! I killed the fly.)
The focus and emphasis in this sentence are on the subject, on who did the killing.
In English, this change in emphasis can be achieved through tone, volume and stress:
I killed it.
I… killed it.
Instead, in Korean, there are markers.
The best way to get a handle on topic and subject particles is to learn their uses “in vivo,” that is, in the natural context of a conversation (or many, many conversations). The circumstances will often be your guide to which particle to use.
Learners should listen to how native speakers use these particles and, along with the immediate context, notice patterns of usage.
When it comes to listening to native speakers, you can easily find authentic Korean resources using a language learning program like FluentU.
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Listening to native speakers is not only important when learning when to use particles but also when learning when not to use them. For example, when no emphasis is needed, native speakers simply skip using these particles. Often, they even skip mentioning the subject altogether. Again, the context will clear everything up and save the day.
By the way, this context-gives-meaning thing is something that happens not just in Korean but in all languages:
Me: Killed it.
3. Object Particle: 을 and 를
The name gives it away: This particle tags the object of the sentence.
In grammar, you know that the object of the sentence refers to the person/object that is acted upon by the subject. In a sentence like “Jenny threw the ball,” the ball is acted upon by the subject Jenny. So, “ball” is the object of that statement.
In English, the object often comes after the verb:
Tim ate pizza.
She locked the door.
In Korean, sentences follow the S-O-V (Subject-Object-Verb) pattern. The sentences above, written in a Korean pattern, would literally be:
Tim pizza ate.
She the door locked.
In the SOV sentence pattern, you’ll find the object before the verb.
You use either 을 (eul) or 를 (leul) to tag the object. Use 을 when the preceding noun ends in a consonant, and use 를 if the preceding noun ends in a vowel.
나는 김치를 먹었다. (Na-neun gim-chi-leul muh-guh-dda.) — I ate kimchi.
그녀는 물을 마신다. (Geu-nyeo-neun mul-eul ma-sin-da.) — She drinks water.
저는 개를 봤어요. (Jeo-neun gae-leul bwa-ssuh-yo.) — I saw a dog.
4. Linking Particles: 와, 과, 하고 and 랑
The next particles are equivalent to the English “and.” They’re used to indicate the grouping or pairing of nouns. For example:
apples and oranges
salt and pepper
dogs, cats and birds
There are several particles that can do the trick. There’s 와 (wa), 과 (gwa), 랑 (rang), 이랑 (i-rang) and 하고 (ha-go).
와 and 과 work well with speeches, presentations and written forms while 랑, 이랑 and 하고 are used in daily conversation.
와 is used when the preceding noun ends in a vowel. 과 is used when the preceding noun ends in a consonant.
For the other pair, 랑 is used when the preceding noun ends in a vowel, and 이랑 is used when the noun ends in a consonant.
하고 can be used freely, with both vowels and consonants.
사과와 오렌지 (sa-gwa-wa o-len-ji) — apples and oranges
소금과 후추 (so-geum-gwa hu-chu) — salt and pepper
개, 고양이하고 새 (gae, go-yang-i-ha-go sae) — dogs, cats and birds
The particles can also be used like the English “with,” such as when you want to do something with someone:
오늘 동찬이랑 놀거야. (O-neul dong-chan-i-lang nol-guh-ya.) — I’m going to play with Dongchan today.
난 친구랑 영화보는 걸 좋아해. (Nan chin-gu-rang yeong-hwa-bo-neun-geol jo-a-hae.) — I like to watch movies with friends.
5. Plural Particle: 들
Learners often ask, “How do I make things plural in Korean?”
In English, we add an “s” or “es” to the end of nouns. In Korean, we add 들 (deul) after the noun. Simple, right?
However, making nouns plural is really not as common in Korean as it is in English. Korean doesn’t really make a difference between singular and plural nouns. So, a sentence like 나는 펜을 샀다 (Na-neun pen-eul sa-dda) can mean “I bought a pen” or “I bought pens.” Native speakers have no problem with this because context is often enough to inform the listener whether the noun is singular or plural.
You use 들 when you want to erase any ambiguity in your statement, or when you want to emphasize that there’s more than one thing. And even then, 들 is really only used for people or living things—it’s rarely used for objects.
Here are some examples:
사람 (sa-ram) — person → 사람들 (sa-ram-deul) — people
학생 (hag-saeng) — student → 학생들 (hag-saeng-deul) — students
학생들은 집에 갔다. (Hag-saeng-deul-eun ji-be ga-dda.) — The students went home.
6. Possessive Particle: 의
This last one is the equivalent of the English apostrophe + s and is about expressing ownership or possession.
의 (ui) moderates the relationship between two nouns and is found between them. The order of the nouns is crucial here. The first noun will be the owner, and the second noun, the one following 의, will be the thing owned. Let’s look at the example 형의 차 (hyeong-ui cha). 형 means “older brother” and 차 means “car.” So, it means “older brother’s car.”
Here are some more examples:
오늘의 게임 (oneul-ui ge-im) — today’s game
메리의 머리카락 (me-li-ui muh-li-ka-lag) — Mary’s hair
우리 아버지의 친구가 왔다. (U-li a-buh-ji-ui chin-gu-ga wa-dda.) — My father’s friend came.
In speech, 의 is often pronounced as 에 (e).
With pronouns like 나 (na) and 저(jeo), which both mean “I” or “me,” and 너 (neo), which means “you,” adding 의 to get the possessive forms “my” and “your” results in a contraction:
나의 becomes 내 (nae) — my
저의 becomes 제 (je) — my
너의 becomes 네 (ne) — your
Here are some more examples:
오늘은 내 생일이야. (O-neul-eun nae saeng-il-i-ya.) — Today is my birthday.
네 생일은 언제야? (Ne saeng-il-eun eon-je-ya?) — When is your birthday?
So, you now have a couple of Korean particles under your belt. You know the topic, subject, object, linking, plural and possessive particles in Korean sentences. You’re well on your way to mastering these important Korean markers!
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