Korean Grammar: Your First Step Towards Fluency

korean grammarEver wanted to learn a new language, but found it too daunting? Fear not! Korean, with its complicated looking characters, is actually one of the simplest Asian languages to learn. Impress your friends with exotic words and easy to learn phrases. It just might be the thing for you.

Try your hand at it by learning Korean grammar step-by-step. Vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling are important in any language, but it’s best to start off with grammar. Once you understand the grammatical rules of a language, all the rest will follow. This language-learning course will also help you make the most of your language learning journey.

The basics of Korean grammar are like your ABCs. You should never forget these things, because they’re the stepping stones for you to move forward. Let’s get started!

Korean has it’s own alphabet called Hangeul (South Korea) or Chosongul (North Korea), so we’ll be using Romanization alongside our lessons. This means we’ll be putting Korean characters into the Roman or Latin alphabet to help you understand how these words and characters actually sound. Anything in [ brackets ] is the Romanized form of the Korean characters.

For more on the Korean alphabet, check out this awesome course taught by a native speaker.

Parts of a Sentence

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a short description of the different parts of a sentence. Subjects are things that the sentence is talking about. Verbs are the words that describe what they’re doing. Objects are what your verb acts on. It’ll be easier to understand this with an example:

e.g. The dog eats his food.

Here, the sentence is talking about the dog, so the subject is the dog. The dog is eating, so your verb is eats. Lastly, a neat little trick to find out the object is to ask “What/Who is the (subject) (base verb)-ing?” That might sound a little weird, but fill in the subject and verb and you get, “What is the dog eating?” The answer to that is his food.

It’s important to understand the components of a sentence, because Korean sentences don’t always follow the same order as English. If you’re able to pick out which are the subjects, verbs, and objects, it’ll make it easier to string sentences together.

For a more in-depth refresher on English grammar, this course will get you straightened out in a hurry.

Particles

Most Korean sentences have words that have a particle attached to them. These signify what the word’s role is in that sentence (subject or object). There’s nothing like this in the English language, so we can’t translate them. There are about 20 particles in Korean, but we’ll teach you the basic ones first.

는or 은(Subject)

This is placed after a word to indicate that it is a sentence’s subject.

  • If the subject’s last syllable ends in a vowel, use 는 [neun]
  • If the subject’s last syllable ends in a consonant, use 은 [eun]

를or 을(Object)

This is placed after a word to indicate that it is the object of a sentence.

  • If the object’s last syllable ends in a vowel, use 를 [leul]
  • If the object’s last syllable ends in a consonant, use 을 [eul]

에(Place or time)

If the verb in the sentence is done at a specific time, you’ve got to attach this to the word indicating the time. It is pronounced [e]. You also attach it to a word that indicates a place.

You can’t exactly translate this to English, but this particle 에 plays the role of the prepositions in the following sentences:

  • I went at 3pm
  • I went to the park

Word Order and Sentence Structure

An important thing to understand when learning Korean grammar is how they put words together to build a sentence. Take a look at these English sentences:

Jessica sees the dog.

Mr. Hyde reads a newspaper.

In English, a lot of the sentences follow the Subject-Verb-Object order or S-V-O. We can’t change this word order without changing the meaning or producing a bad sentence:

The cat sees Jessica.

Mr. Hyde a newspaper reads.

In Korean, the sentences aren’t always structured this way. There is a saying that when learning Korean, that the trick is to listen until the end of the sentence. This is where the verbs, tenses, and important expressions come in. It’s incredibly important that you understand this.

Every Korean sentence MUST end in a verb (like eat, read, etc.) or an adjective (like pretty, yummy, hungry, etc.) otherwise you’d be grammatically incorrect.

Sentence Construction According to Type

  • Basic Statements

If you want to make a simple statement to give basic facts, you can use either of the two sentence structures:

1. Subject – Verb

These are very simple sentences. They are used when a sentence hasn’t got an object because it’s simply not needed. For example, you can say “I ate” or “I ran” and they’d both be correct sentences. Also, there are some verbs that will never have an object. Verbs like “sleep” or “die” are examples of these.

When making a simple Subject-Verb sentence in Korean, it’s just like English. You tag the verb right after the subject.

Hangeul: 캐럴이와요

Literal English: Carol comes

Romanization: [Carol-i wa-yo]

Translation: Carol comes.

2. Subject-Object-Verb

The Subject-Object-Verb type of structure is one of the most common types in Korean. You can do a lot with this structure once you fully understand it. Not everyone can wrap their head around it easily though, because it’s one of the biggest differences between English and Korean.

In Korean, the verb will come at the sentence’s end. In English, however, it comes in the middle or at the start of the sentence. Let’s fully illustrate this with an example:

Hangeul: 에릭이 사과를 먹어요

Literal English: Eric apple eats

Romanization: [Eric-i sa-gwa-leul muk-uh-yo]

Translation: Eric eats an apple.

If we literally translated each word in that sentence, it would be Eric apple eats. But in Korean, it’s the grammatically correct way to say Eric eats an apple.

  • Descriptive Statements

A common mistake when building descriptive statements in Korean is that people try to say “to be + adjective”. The Korean word for “to be” is 이다 [ida]. In Korean, it would be wrong to structure it as “(Subject) + (to be) 이다 + (adjective)” In English, it would be correct to do this, as you can see in the following sentences:

I am nice.

She was hungry earlier.

He is a bad person.

You have the conjugated form of the “to be” verb (am, is, are, was, were, etc.) linked to a describing word, or adjective. In Korean, however, if you want to make a descriptive statement, you use the Subject-Descriptive Verb structure.

This is just like the Subject-Verb structure, except that we use the Korean counterpart of an adjective or a describing word. Descriptive verbs are like adjectives and verbs in one. Cool, right? Now you don’t have to put the “to be” verb, but simply conjugate the descriptive verb. Again, it’s easier to understand that with an example:

Hangeul: 나쁜사람이에요

Literal English: Bad Person-ieyo

Romanization: [na-ppeun sa-lam-ieyo]

Translation: I am a bad person.

In this case, the word “person” is conjugated by putting the 이에요 [ieyo] at the end of it. By doing this, we understand that the sentence is saying “I am a bad person”. Without the 이에요, all it means is “The bad person”.

Verb Conjugation and Tenses

  • The Existence Verb: To Be or Not To Be, That Is The Question

Since you’re familiar with the structure for sentences with descriptive verbs, we’ll discuss a little more about how to conjugate the basic existence verb. The Korean word for “to be” is 이다 [ida] and “not to be” is 아니다 [anida]

A) “Tobe” 이다 is conjugated twice.

When the word you’re conjugating closes with a consonant, attach 이에요 [ieyo] to the end. Just like earlier:

Hangeul:나쁜 사람이에요

Literal English: Bad Person-ieyo

Romanization: [na-ppeun sa-lam-ieyo]

Translation: I am a bad person.

If the word has a vowel at the end, you’ll use “예요 ye-yo.” For example:

Hangeul:저는 여자예요

Literal English: I girl+yeyo

Romanization: [jeo-neunyeo-jay-yeyo]

Translation: I am a girl.

B) “Not to be”, or 아니다 is only conjugated once: (Noun) + 이/가 아니에요 [-i an-ieyo] . For example:

Hangeul: 저는 고등학생이 아니에요

Literal English: I highschool student-i am not-anieyo

Romanization: [jeo-neun go-deung-hak-saeng-i an-ieyo]

Translation: I am not a high school student.

Verb Tenses

Most Korean verbs are denoted in their base form by the symbol 다 at the end. For example, the verb “to buy” is written as 사다 [sa-da]. In English, these change as the tense changes. If the verb was done in the past, it becomes bought. If it’s being done now, it becomes buying. Korean uses tenses too. Read on to learn how to conjugate according to tense.

1) Present Tense: Verbs being done now.

Watch the syllable directly before 다. With verbs that haveㅏ[a] or ㅗ[o] in the syllable, follow it with 아요 [ayo].

팔다 [pal-da] “to sell” becomes 팔아요 [par-a-yo] “selling”

사다 [sa-da] “to buy” becomes 사요 [sa-yo] “buying” *

*(you don’t need a second ㅏ because of the one that’s already there)

Otherwise, add 어요 [oyo]

먹다 [meuk-da] “to eat” becomes 먹어요 [meo-geo-yo] “eating”

그리다 [geu-ri-da] “to draw” becomes 그려요 [geur-yeo-yo] “drawing”

2) Past Tense: Verbs done in the past

When the action described by the verb has already taken place, you’ll want to use the same 아/어요 conjugation, but instead of only 요 at the end, include ㅆ어요 as well.

먹다 [meuk-da] “to eat” becomes 먹었어요 [meu-geo-sseo-yo] “ate”

사다 [sa-da] ”to buy” becomes 샀어요 [sa-sseo-yo] “bought”

Future tenses are slightly more complicated, as well as irregular verbs. Get these basics mastered first, and build your vocabulary before moving on to future tense.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that you’ve gotten a few basic Korean grammar lessons, put them to good use by practicing with them. Continue to expand your vocabulary, and try to build a few simple sentences on your own. This blog post has some good vocabulary to get your started. The more you practice, the easier it’ll be to form your thoughts in Korean. Don’t be afraid to sound funny. What matters is you try!

Finally, if you need to learn Korean fast, maybe for a trip or a conference, the best trick everyone needs to learn:

“Do you speak English?” 영어를 할줄아세요? [yeon-geor-eul hal jul a-se-yo]

There’s also this course that will help you learn any language faster and more efficiently.