Korean Sentence Structure: The Practical Guide to Basic Word Order Patterns
As a Korean language learner, you’re constantly working towards making your own sentences properly.
Well, it’s time to level up your power to do so.
In this post, we’ll go over the details of basic Korean sentence structure, such as the Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) and a couple of others.
Plus, we’ll show you how to use Korean particles, like topic, subject and object markers.
By the end of it, you’re able to start expressing yourself with ease and grammatical accuracy!
- Most Important Korean Sentence Structures
- Korean Particles: Markers and Indicators
- What You Need to Know About Korean Sentence Structure
- And One More Thing...
Most Important Korean Sentence Structures
1. Subject-Object-Verb (SOV)
The most basic Korean sentences are made with the Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) pattern.
This means you introduce the subject first, followed by the object and then finally, the verb.
The first half of the Korean sentence introduces the cast of characters (subject and object), and the second half tells you the thing (verb) that happens between them. That’s the essence of an SOV sentence pattern.
English, on the other hand, is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO).
This puts English speakers at a disadvantage who are used to thinking that “she drank milk,” instead of “she milk drank.”
- 저는 한국어를 공부해요 — I study Korean
Subject: 저 — I
Object: 한국어 — Korean
Verb: 공부 — study
- 그녀는 문을 닫았다 — She closed the door
Subject: 그녀 — She
Object: 문 — door
Verb: 닫았다 — closed
- 저는 책을 읽고 있어요 — I’m reading a book
Subject: 저 — I
Object: 책 — book
Verb: 읽다 — read
2. Subject-Verb (SV)
Sometimes, the sentence doesn’t need an object to be meaningful. It can be just the subject and the verb.
- 할아버지가 오셨다. — Grandfather came
Subject: 할아버지 — grandfather
Verb: 오셨다 — came
- 엄마는 울었다 — Mom cried
Subject: 엄마 — mom
Verb: 울었다 — cried
- 그녀는 들었다 — She heard
Subject: 그녀 — She
Verb: 들었다 — heard
3. Subject-Adjective (SA)
Sometimes, a sentence only has a subject and an adjective.
- 저는 바빠요 — I’m busy
Subject: 저 — I
Adjective: 바빠요 — busy
- 날씨가 덥다 — The weather is hot
Subject: 날씨 — weather
Adjective: 덥다 — hot
- 영화는 길었다 — The movie was long
Subject: 영화 — Movie
Adjective: 길었다 — long
Korean Particles: Markers and Indicators
In the Korean sentences you’re studying, you might have noticed that there are characters that come immediately after the nouns. These are Korean particles.
They look like this: 은, 는, 이, 가, 을 and 를.
Korean particles tell you something about the noun that immediately precedes them. These little helpers tell you what the different parts of a sentence are all about.
In reality, there are a lot of Korean particles. About 20 are commonly used. Here, we’ll be talking about three that are critical in sentence structure.
Topic Markers 은 and 는
은 and 는 are topic markers. When they follow a noun, it means that noun is elevated as the topic of the conversation. All subsequent sentences should revolve around the topic unless another one is introduced.
은 and 는 are essentially the same. 은 is used for nouns that end with a consonant, while 는 is used for nouns that end with a vowel.
When you introduce yourself, you use topic markers:
저는 Rob입니다. — I am Rob
One important thing about these topic markers is that embedded in them is a contrasting function. For example, you say:
소년은 똑똑하다. — The boy is smart
In the example, saying the boy is smart also implies that somebody else may not be so smart. You aren’t directly saying it, but by using the topic marker, an unvoiced contrast is made.
Subject Markers 이 and 가
Subject markers are very aptly named. They point to the subject of the sentence.
In sentences where an action (verb) is central to its meaning, the subject is the doer of that action. If it answers questions like, “Who is doing the kicking, eating, driving, etc.,” then that’s the subject.
In other cases, like the statement “Your eyebrows are on fleek,” where an adjective is involved, the subject is the one being described. The subject is where descriptions (adjectives) like “boring,” “fun,” “long,” “rich” and “bright” land.
In Korean, the subject markers are 이 and 가. They’re placed immediately after the noun.
이 is used for nouns that end with a consonant, and 가 is for nouns that end with a vowel.
Notice how they immediately follow the subjects in these sentence examples:
석양이 아름답다 — The sunset is beautiful
Subject: 석양 — sunset
개가 나를 물었다 — The dog bit me
Subject: 개 — dog
You’ll see and hear these subject markers over and over in Korean sentences unless the subject is skipped.
Object Markers 을 and 를
This time, we look into object markers—which are placed after the object of the sentence.
In grammar, the object of the sentence is the thing that’s being acted upon. The verb is applied to the object.
So if there’s kicking going on, a ball might be the object of it. If there’s pizza (the object in a sentence like “I ate the pizza.”), it will definitely be eaten.
을 and 를 are our object markers.
을 is used when the preceding noun ends with a consonant, and 를 follows a noun that ends with a vowel.
그녀는 음식을 샀다— She bought food
Object: 음식 — food
그는 차를 주차했다 — He parked the car
Object: 차 — car
Topic Markers vs. Subject Markers
Now, you might be asking, “There seems to be a lot of overlap between topic markers and subject markers. How do I know which one to use?”
Topic markers and subject markers look very similar, and you see both of them tagging along with the noun that opens the sentence. But there are a couple of important differences between them:
A topic marker implies contrast, while a subject marker doesn’t.
If you say that “The earrings are expensive” with a topic marker, you’re implying that something else isn’t expensive. A subject marker doesn’t have these extra implications.
When you say 귀걸이가 비싸다 (The earrings are expensive), you’re really just saying that and nothing else. You’re not alluding to something else being not expensive.
The topic marker emphasizes the verb, while the subject marker emphasizes the subject.
In a sentence like, “I ate the pizza,” using topic and subject markers might put the focus on slightly different things.
Topic marker: 나는 피자를 먹었다 — I ate the pizza
Subject marker: 내가 피자를 먹었다 — I ate the pizza
In the first statement, using the topic marker will emphasize the verb or the action that took place. What happened to the pizza? I ate it. I didn’t keep it in the fridge, I didn’t throw it away, I ate it instead.
In the second statement, when using the subject marker, the emphasis is placed on the subject—the person who did the eating. So who ate the pizza? I did. Not mom, not dad, not the dog, but me. I ate it.
What You Need to Know About Korean Sentence Structure
The subject can sometimes be removed
In Korean, some sentences don’t have a subject. But you’ll quickly realize that this doesn’t pose any communication problems whatsoever.
Koreans rely more on the power of context in their speech. This is because Korean is a high-context language. You don’t really need a subject to understand what a sentence is about.
So don’t worry if the subject, or any other element, is missing. The context will always help you out.
어디 가요—which is usually translated as “where are you going?”—is literally just “where go?”
All you need to understand is the context of a Korean sentence to discern its true meaning—even without a subject.
Adjectives are conjugated
This will sound strange to English speakers because we know that “adjectives” and “verbs” clearly belong to different categories or classes. Heck, they’re different parts of speech—one describes a noun, the other is an action word.
But in Korean, “adjectives” fall under the rubric of “verbs.”
They’re called “descriptive verbs.” Because Korean adjectives are considered verbs, you’ll handle them the same way—you conjugate them.
Conjugation is when you transform a verb to make it agree with the tense, number, mood or voice of the sentence.
For example, in English we have the verb “run.” You can say “ran” to refer to something that happened in the past, “will run,” to refer to something in the future or “running” if it’s happening right now.
And of course, verbs in Korean are also conjugated:
Verbs are at the end of sentences
In Korean, sentence endings are really where it’s at. They’re loaded with meaning.
Besides marking politeness level or formality, there’s so much information left at the tail end of Korean sentences. You’re really going to have to wait until the end before you know what the sentence is about.
Why? Verbs. They’re the most important part, and they hang around at the end of sentences.
Korean statements usually open with the “subject,” followed by the “object.” Think of them like they’re the cast of characters in a story. They’re introduced early. But what happens between them is revealed at the end.
An English statement would be something like:
The cat ate the rat.
In Korean, verbs come last and it would be more along the lines of:
Cat rat ate.
Hearing (and seeing) all of this in action is how you’ll really start to understand how it works. A language learning program like FluentU can help you do that.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
There you have it!
We learned about the three most common sentence structures and three Korean particles.
With these simple Korean sentence patterns, you can say what you want—and mean it.
And One More Thing...
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