On Topics and Subjects

I’m going to make a wild assumption here.  Although you suck at Korean, I’m guessing that you have read at least one chapter of a Korean textbook, or sat through a couple classes, or listened to a few podcasts.  If you’ve done any studying on your own, then I’m pretty sure you’ve been introduced to the topic markers 은/는 and subject markers 이/가.  I’m not going to repeat the basics here, because these things are covered in virtually every textbook that you’ll read.  But topics and subjects often continue to baffle intermediate and even advanced students.  And that’s because textbooks and teachers almost always fail to cover a few simple but important facts.  I’m going to try and correct that deficiency here.

First (and this is the part about the American education system that scares me to my very core) you need a quick refresher on exactly what a subject is.  When we’re talking about English grammar (which we are) the subject is the person, place or thing that conducts the action of the verb.  It is not the same as the “theme” or “subject matter”.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about something very discrete — the thing that carries out the action of the verb.  That’s what a subject is.  In Korean, this is almost always the case.  But sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes the “subject” in Korean does not carry out an action.  That’s because some verbs require the referent (what the verb is referring to) to be the subject.  For example:

내 친구가 그 이메일을 보냈어.
My friend sent that email.

Here, the subject is clearly the person/place/thing carrying out the action of the verb.  This is exactly the same thing that a subject does in English grammar.

그 핸드백이 참 좋아요.
That handbag is is really nice.  <or>  I really like that handbag.

Here, however, the Korean subject is not the same thing as the English subject.  The Korean subject, marked with 이/가, isn’t actually carrying out any action at all.  It’s the referent of the verb instead.  Ruminate on that for a bit.

A topic, on the other hand, is much more like a “theme” or “subject matter”.  It’s what you’re talking about.  Think back to high school English class for a minute.  Do you remember what a topic sentence is?  The topic sentence is usually the very first sentence in a paragraph and it encapsulates the central theme of that paragraph.  If you removed every other sentence from the paragraph then you’d lose all of the details but, if you still had the topic sentence, you’d at least know what the paragraph was about.  The same holds true for the markers 은/는.  They tell you what the sentence is about; what you’re talking about.  For example, look at the sentence “그 분은 영문학 교수입니다.”  (That person is an English professor.)  If I took away all of the details except for the topic (marked with 은), you’d at least know what we were talking about.  You’d know that we were talking about “that person”.  You might not know any details about that person, or what comment I was making about him or her.  But you’d know what the topic of conversation was.

Does this make sense so far?

A lot of people think that the subject and topic are kind of the same thing.  Well, they can be, but don’t have to be.  Let’s forget all this subject/topic mumbo jumbo and use two other words instead.  How about “small” and “blue”?  Are “small” and “blue” the same thing?  Absolutely not!  They’re two completely different words with different and unrelated meanings.  But could something be both small and blue?  Of course it can!  It’s the same with topic and subject.  Both words are independent and have unrelated meanings.  But, in a sentence, the same noun could be both the topic of the sentence and the subject.  Let’s look at the sentence “그 분은 서울역 앞에 기다리고있습니다.” (That person is waiting in front of Seoul Station.).  In this case, “that person” is both the topic (what the sentence is about) and the subject (the thing that carries out the action of the verb “waiting”).

“Umm… but isn’t 은/는 also called the contrast particle?  What’s up with that?”

Alright.  Hold on a second.  This is another term (like “subject” and “topic”) that can be misleading.  What exactly is “contrast” anyway?  Whenever 은/는 and “contrast” are brought up on the same page, this is the type of example that always follows.
지나는 미국 사람입니다.  은정은 한국 사람입나다.

Supposedly, you’re contrasting two items (Gina and Eun-Jeong, in this case.)  But this isn’t true!  You’re not contrasting anything.  You just happen to be talking about two different topics, one right after the other.  So, naturally, you use the topic marker to indicate a shift to a different topic.  This is where students get led astray.  It seems like a contrast, but it really isn’t.

This misleading information is doubly confusing because 은/는 can, in fact, be used to contrast things.  Here’s a better example, though, of how this works.
오늘은 예뻐 보여요.

Literally, the sentence means “Today you look pretty.”  At first, this seems like it might be a compliment.  But, because you use the particle 은 after the word “today”, what you’re really saying is that they look pretty today (as opposed to most other days.)   If you say this to someone, rest assured that the message will be received loud and clear.  And that message is, “most days you look like crap.”  That’s how you use 은/는 to indicate contrast!

And there’s another way that the word “contrast” misleads people.  You see, 은/는 really only point out the topic, plain and simple.  But 이/가 can add some semantic weight (or emphasis, or focus, or contrast, or whatever else you want to call it) to a sentence.  Let’s say I want to translate the following brief conversation.

A:  Gina is an English professor.
B:  What?  Eun-Jung is an English professor?
A:  No, GINA is an English professor.
Most people would agree on how to translate the first two lines:
A:  지나는 영문학 교수예요.
B:  뭐?  은정은 영문학 교수야?
But here’s the third line:
A:  아니요.  지나가 영문학 교수입니다.

Now if you were taught that 은/는 were “contrast” particles, then you’d be tempted to say “지나는”.  But you’d be wrong.  은/는 merely identify the topic.  They don’t stress anything.  이/가, however, can and do stress part of the sentence.  It’s like saying “(No, I said) GINA is an English professor.”

So, is all of this making more sense?  Do you suck at Korean a little bit less now?  Then my work here is done.

1 thought on “On Topics and Subjects”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *