Korean grammar

This article is a description of the morphology, syntax, and semantics of Korean. For phonetics and phonology, see Korean phonology. See also Korean honorifics, which play a large role in the grammar.[1]

Note on romanization

This article uses a form of Yale romanization to illustrate the morphology of Korean words. The Yale system is different from the Revised Romanization of Korean seen with place names.

Under the version of Yale used here, morphemes are written according to their underlying form rather than their spelling in the Korean writing system or pronunciation. Under this system, for example, the syllable which is written in Korean as is analyzed as ess even though the ss would be pronounced t before another consonant, and the vowel e is pronounced low and somewhat rounded, closer to o. To avoid confusion, bold type will represent the morphology (in Yale), and italics will represent Revised Romanization.

Classification of words

Korean grammar
Hangul 9품사
Hanja 9品詞
Revised Romanization gupumsa
McCune–Reischauer kup'umsa

Korean grammarians have been classifying Korean words to parts of speech for centuries, but the modern standard is the one taught in public schools, chosen by South Korea's 1963 Committee on Education. This is the 9 pumsa (9품사) system, which divides words into nine categories called pumsa.[2][3]

The pumsa are themselves grouped together according to the following chart.

Both cardinal and ordinal numbers are grouped into their own part of speech. Descriptive verbs and action verbs are classified separately despite sharing essentially the same conjugation. Verb endings constitute a large and rich class of morphemes, indicating such things in a sentence as tense, mood, aspect, speech level (of which there are 7 in Korean), and honorifics. Prefixes and suffixes are numerous, partly because Korean is an agglutinative language.

There are also various other important classes of words and morphemes that are not generally classified among the pumsa. 5 other major classes of words or morphemes are:



Main article: Korean postpositions

Korean postpositions are also known as case markers. Examples include (neun, topic marker) and (reul, object marker). Postpositions come after substantives and are used to indicate the role (subject, object, complement, or topic) of a noun in a sentence or clause. For a larger list, see wikt:Category:Korean particles.

Case clitics

Both nouns and pronouns take case clitics. Pronouns are somewhat irregular. As with many clitics and suffixes in Korean, for many case clitics different forms are used with nouns ending in consonants and nouns ending in vowels. The most extreme example of this is in the nominative (subject), where the historical clitic i is now restricted to appearing after consonants, and a completely unrelated (suppletive) form -ka (pronounced -ga) appears after vowels.

Case clitics
CaseAfter VAfter C
Nominative ka -ga-i
Accusative lul -reulul -eul
Genitive -uy -ui1
(also destination)
-ey -e (inanimate)
-ey key 에게 -ege (animate)
(place of event, also source)
-ey se 에서 -eseo (inanimate)
-ey key se 에게서 -egeseo (animate)
Instrumental -lo -ro2-ulo 으로 -euro
(also and)
-hako 하고 -hago
-wa kwa -gwa
lang -rang-i lang 이랑 -irang

1 -uy is a historical spelling, which is now allowed to be pronounced Korean pronunciation: ɛ as well as Korean pronunciation: ɰi.

2 -lo also occurs with stems ending in l.

Informational clitics
Information clitics
TypeAfter VAfter C
Topic* nun neunun -eun
Additive* to -do
And (and so on) na -na-i na 이나 -ina

* The topic and additive markers mark the noun phrase with case markers. They override the nominative and accusative case markers rather than being attached after those case markers.


명사(名詞) Myeongsa, "nouns," do not have grammatical gender and though they can be made plural by adding the suffix deul to the end of the word, in general the suffix is not used when the plurality of the noun is clear from context. For example, while the English sentence "there are three apples" would use the plural "apples" instead of the singular "apple", the Korean sentence 사과가 세 개 있습니다 sagwaga se gae isssumnida "apple three(things) exist" keeps the word 사과 sagwa "apple" in its unmarked form, as the numeral makes the plural marker redundant.

The most basic, fundamental Korean vocabulary is native to the Korean language, e.g. 나라 (nara, country), (nal, day). However, a large body of Korean nouns stem from the Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters e.g. (山) san, "mountain," (驛) yeok, "station," 문화(文化) munhwa, "culture", etc. Many Sino-Korean words have native Korean equivalents and vice versa, but not always. The choice of whether to use a Sino-Korean noun or a native Korean word is a delicate one, with the Sino-Korean alternative often sounding more profound or refined. It is in much the same way that Latin- or French-derived words in English are used in higher-level vocabulary sets (e.g. the sciences), thus sounding more refined – for example, the Anglo-Saxon "ask" versus Romance "inquire".

For a list of Korean nouns, see wikt:Category:Korean nouns.


Main article: Korean pronouns

Korean pronouns (대명사, daemyeongsa, 代名詞) are highly influenced by the honorifics in the language. Pronouns change forms depending on the social status of the person or persons spoken to, e.g. the pronoun for "I" there is both the informal (na) and the honorific/humble (jeo). In general second person singular pronouns are avoided, especially when using honorific forms. Third-person pronouns are not well-developed and in most cases, a demonstrative geu 'that' in combination of a noun such as "saram" 'person' or "ges" 'thing' is used to fill the gap. Also, only for translation and creative writing, a newly-coined term, "geu-nye" (literally, 'that woman') is used to aphoristically refer a female third person. A gender-neutral third-person is covered by the demonstrative "geu" (originally 'that'). For a larger list of Korean pronouns, see wikt:Category:Korean pronouns.


Main article: Korean numerals

Korean numerals (수사, susa, 數詞) include two regularly used sets: a native Korean set and a Sino-Korean set. The Sino-Korean system is nearly entirely based on the Chinese numerals. The distinction between the two numeral systems is very important. Everything that can be counted will use one of the two systems, but seldom both. The grouping of large numbers in Korean follows the Chinese tradition of myriads (10,000) rather than thousands (1,000) as is common in Europe and North America.

Verbs (broadly speaking)

Main article: Korean verbs

Processual verbs

Korean 동사(動詞) dongsa, which include 쓰다 (sseuda, "to use") and 가다 (gada, "to go"), are usually called, simply, "verbs." However, they can also be called "action verbs" or "dynamic verbs," because they describe an action, process, or movement. This distinguishes them from 형용사(形容詞) hyeongyongsa.

Korean verb conjugation depends upon the tense, aspect, mood, and the social relation between the speaker, the subject(s), and the listener(s). Different endings are used depending on the speaker's relation with their subject or audience. Politeness is a critical part of Korean language and Korean culture; the correct verb ending must be chosen to indicate the proper degree of respect or familiarity for the situation.

Descriptive verbs

형용사(形容詞) Hyeongyongsa, sometimes translated as "adjectives" but also known as "descriptive verbs" or "stative verbs," are verbs such as 예쁘다 yeppeuda, "to be pretty" or 붉다 bukda, "to be red." English does not have an identical grammatical category, and the English translation of a Korean hyeongyongsa is usually a linking verb + an English adjective. However, some Korean words which do not match that formula, such as 아쉽다 aswipda, a transitive verb which means "to lack" or "to want for", are still considered hyeongyongsa in Korean because they match the conjugation pattern for adjectives. For a larger list, see wikt:Category:Korean adjectives.

Copulative and existential verbs

The predicate marker i-ta 이다 serves as the copula, which links the subject with its complement, that is, the role 'to be' plays in English. For example, 대나무는 풀이다. Taynamwu-nun phwul-i-ta. "A bamboo is a grass." When the complement, which is suffixed by i-ta, ends in a vowel, i-ta contracts into -ta quite often as in following example, 우리는 친구다. Wuli-nun chinkwu-ta. "We are friends." The past tense of i-ta is of course i-ess-ta. However, if it is attached after a vowel, it is always contracted into yess-ta. If not, it cannot be contracted.

To negate, a special adjective ani-ta 아니다 is used, being one of the two cases that take complement (the other is toy-ta 되다). Two nouns take the nominative clitic i/ka 이/가 before the negative copula; one is the subject, and the other is the complement. For instance, in 대나무는 나무가 아니다. Taynamwu-nun namwu-ka ani-ta. "A bamboo is not a tree.", 대나무는 taynamwu-nun is the subject and 나무가 namwu-ka is the complement. The derived form aniyo 아니요 is the word for "no" when answering a positive question. (In the case of a negative question, aniyo is equivalent to "yes" in English.)

I-ta and ani-ta become 이야 i-ya (often ya after a vowel) and 아니야 (아냐) ani-ya (anya) at the end of the sentence in hae-che style. In haeyo-che style, they become 이에요 i-ey-yo (often 예요 yey-yo after a vowel) and 아니에요 (아녜요) ani-ey-yo (anyey-yo) as well as the less common forms 이어요/여요 i-e-yo/ye-yo and 아니어요 (아녀요) ani-e-yo (anye-yo).

The copula is only for "to be" in the sense of "A is B". For existence, Korean uses the existential verbs (or adjectives) iss-ta 있다 iss-/it-da "there is" and eps-ta 없다 eobs-/eop-da "there isn't." The honorific existential verb for iss-ta is kyeysi-ta 계시다 gyesi-da.



Korean 관형사(冠形詞) gwanhyeongsa are known in English as "determiners," "determinatives," "pre-nouns," "adnouns," "attributives," "unconjugated adjectives," and "indeclinable adjectives." Gwanhyeongsa come before and modify or specify nouns, much like attributive adjectives or articles in English. Examples include (各) kak, "each." For a larger list, see wikt:Category:Korean determiners.


Korean adverbs (부사, busa, 副詞) include (ddo, "also") and 가득 (gadeuk, "fully"). Busa, like adverbs in English, modify verbs. For a larger list, see wikt:Category:Korean adverbs.

Other content words


Korean interjections (감탄사, gamtansa, 感歎詞) are also known in English as "exclamations". Examples include 아니 (ani, "no"). For a larger list, see wikt:Category:Korean interjections.


Korean is typical of languages with verb-final word order, such as Japanese, in that most affixes are suffixes and clitics are enclitics, modifiers precede the words they modify, and most elements of a phrase or clause are optional.

Complex sentences

Connected sentences

Container sentences

Note that -(u)m is used in more formal settings, meanwhile -ki is used casually.
나는 그가 이미 죽었음을 몰랐다. "I didn't know that he was already dead."
그녀가 범인명백하다. "That she is the criminal is clear."
하기(가) 싫다. "I don't feel like working."
먹기(에) 좋게 자른 채소 "vegetables chopped for the convenience of eating"
Accompanied with several dependent nouns, adjective clause can comprise idiomatic expressions, such as -ㄹ 것이다 -l kes-i-ta for the future conjugation, -ㄹ 것 같다 -l ket kat-ta "I suppose...", -ㄹ 수(가) 있다/없다 -l swu-(ka) iss-ta/eps-ta "It is possible/impossible...", -ㄹ 가 없다 -l li-ka eps-ta "It makes no sense that..."
그는 여태 한 번 늦은 이 없었다. 오늘 역시 그는 제 시간에 올 것이다. "He has never been late so far. Today, as usual, he'll be in time."
A lot of caution is needed when faced with -게 하다 -key ha-ta and -게 되다 -key toy-ta, which may mean just "do -ly" and "become sth -ly", but also can make causative and passive verbs respectively; which are consisted of main and supportive verbs.
정원을 아름답게 하다 (causative) ↔ 발레를 아름답게 하다 (adverbial; causative if intended)
방이 깔끔하게 되다 (passive) ↔ 격파가 깔끔하게 되다 (adverbial; passive if intended)
The last syllable -ko is often dropped. Furthermore, if the verb ha-ta means 'to say' and is right next to the syllable -ko, then -고 하다 -ko ha-ta is abridged becoming -다 -ta, which of course can conjugate.
뭐라? (뭐라고 하디?)
내가 뭐랬어. (내가 뭐라고 했어.) 괜히 기운빠졌네. "Do you remember what I said? You only got tired for nothing."

Supporting verbs/adjectives

Sometimes, just using an adverb is insufficient to express the exact meaning the speaker has in mind. The composition of a main verb (or adjective) and a supporting verb (or adjective) can be used in this case, alongside some grammatical features. Suffixes including -아/어 -ea, -게 -key, -지 -ci, and -고 -ko are taken by the main verb (or adjective), and the supporting verb (or a.) follows it and is conjugated.

Examples using -ea

Examples using -key

Examples using -ci

Examples using -ko

Examples using other suffixes


Korean has general number.[4] That is, a noun on its own is neither singular nor plural. It also has an optional plural marker tul -deul, which is most likely to be used for definite and highly animate nouns (primarily first- and second-person pronouns, to a lesser extent nouns and third-person pronouns referring to humans, etc.) This is similar to several other languages with optional number, such as Japanese.

However, Korean tul may also be found on the predicate, on the verb, object of the verb, or modifier of the object, in which case it forces a distributive plural reading (as opposed to a collective reading) and indicates that the word is attached to expresses new information.

For instance:

많이들 먹다가들 가거라
manidɯl mʌk̚taɡadɯl kaɡʌɾa
'You guys eat well and go.'

In this case, the information that the subject is plural is expressed.

To add a distributive meaning on a numeral, 'ssik' is used.

학생들이 풍선을 하나씩 샀어요
haksayng-tul-i phungsen-ulhana-ssik sa-ss-e-yo
hak̚sɛŋdɯɾi pʰuŋsʰʌnɯl hanas͈ik̚ sʰas͈ʌjo
student-PL-NOM balloon-ACC one-each buy-PRET-INT-POL
"The students bought a balloon each."

Now "balloon" is specified as a distributive plural.

Subject–verb agreement

While it is usually stated that Korean doesn't have subject–verb agreement, the conjugated verbs do, in fact, show agreement with the logical subject (not necessarily the grammatical subject) in several ways. However, agreement in Korean usually only narrows down the range of subjects. Personal agreement is shown partly on the verb stem before the tense-aspect-mood suffixes, and partly on the sentence-final endings.

Korean distinguishes:

Korean does not distinguish:

The following table is meant to indicate how the verb stem and/or the sentence ending can vary depending on the subject.The column labeled "jussive ending" contains the various jussive sentences endings in the plain style.

Person Person agreement on final ending
Jussive ending
1st sg (volition) -keyss-ta -겠다 (common)
-(u)li-ta -리다
-(u)lyen-ta -련다
-(u)ma -마
1st pl (suggestion) -ca -자
2nd, 3rd (command) -eala -아/어라


Main article: Valency (linguistics)

Valency in Korean

Subordinate clauses

Verbs can take conjunctive suffixes. These suffixes make subordinate clauses.

One very common suffix -ko -고 -go, can be interpreted as a gerund if used by itself, or, with a subject of its own, as a subordinating conjunction. That is, mek.ko 먹고 meokgo means approximately "eating," koki lul mek.ko 고기를 먹고 gogireul meokgo means "eating meat," and nay ka koki lul mek.ko 내가 고기를 먹고 nae-ga gogi-reul meog-go means "I eat meat and..." or "My eating meat."

Another suffix, somewhat similar in meaning, is se -seo which is, however, attached to long stem of a verb. The long stem of a verb is the one that is formed by attaching -ea 어/아 -eo/-a after a consonant.

Both sometimes called gerunds, the verb form that ends in se and the one that ends in -ko juxtapose two actions, the action in the subclause and the action in the main clause. The difference between them is that with se the action in the subclause necessarily came first, while -ko conveys more of an unordered juxtaposition. se is frequently used to imply causation, and is used in many common expressions like manna se pan.kapsupnita 만나서 반갑습니다 Manna-seo bangapseumnida (literally, "Since I met you, I'm happy" -or- "Having met you, I'm happy"). If -ko was used instead, the meaning would be closer to "I meet you and I'm happy," that is, without any implied logical connection.

These are both subordinating conjunctive suffixes and can't (in the more formal registers, at least) derive complete sentences of their own without the addition of a main verb, by default the verb iss . Nay ka koki lul mek.ko issta 내가 고기를 먹고 있다 naega gogireul meokko itta therefore means "I am eating meat." The difference between this and the simple sentence nay ka koki lul meknun ta 내가 고기를 먹는다 is similar to the difference in Spanish between "Estoy almorzando" and "Almuerzo," in that the compound form emphasizes the continuity of the action. The -se form is used with the existential verb iss for the perfect. Mwuni yellye issta 문이 열려 있다 'the door has been opened' can be the example, although it would convey different meaning if the very syllable se were visible, 문이 열려서 있다 'because the door is opened, it exist', meaning of which is not clear, though.

See also


  1. Much of the material in this article comes from the companion text to the NHK language materials Hanguru Nyūmon (1985).
  2. Lee, Chul Young (2004). Essential Grammar for Korean as a second Language (PDF). pp. 18–19. Retrieved 3 January 2010.
  3. Ihm, Ho Bin (2009). Korean Grammar for International Learners. Yonsei University Press. p. 1. ISBN 89-7141-554-1.
  4. Corbett, Greville G., Number, pages 137–138, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics, P240.8.C67 2000, ISBN 0-521-64016-4
  5. [ Pak, Miok et al. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/portnerp/nsfsite/CSSP_handout.pdf " What Korean Promissives tell us about Jussive Clause Type"], Colloque de syntaxe et sémantique à Paris 2005, retrieved on 3 December 2011
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