All posts by baekdusan

반말 vs 존댓말

Well, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted any lessons and I thought it was about time that I do something about it.  Most writers would take this opportunity to explain why they’ve been away for so long, but I’m not going to bore you.  I could tell you I’ve been busy.  I could tell you “it’s not you, it’s me.”  But those would be lies.  Truth is, I just don’t care about you very much.

For English speakers, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the appropriate use of 반말 (frequently called “informal”, “intimate”, or “blunt” speech).  Many people who learn Korean in schools, institutes, or other formal settings learn 존댓말 (polite speech) quite well, but get very little opportunity to practice 반말.  Others, who learn primarily from friends and peers, learn nothing but 반말 and then make asses of themselves when they try to address someone who is clearly older or higher in social status.  This is a shame.  And, yes, it makes you suck at Korean.

This is a huge topic and it would be impossible to cover this in one lesson alone, so I’m going to start off with some “theory” behind it all.  I’m not going to cover the mechanics of verb endings in 반말, nor will I be fleshing out the differences between forms of address.  Instead, I just want you to sit back, relax, and take in some important information about levels of speech in Korean.  God knows you need it.

Before I begin, I’d like you to keep in mind something important.  Even Koreans have a hard time with this.  This is so important that I’m going to reword that sentence and try to make my point again.  Even native Korean speakers can have difficulty determining the appropriate level of speech to use in conversation.  It’s not like there’s some hard-and-fast rule book that Korean school children memorize during their youth, illuminating every possible combination of speaker and listener so that the appropriate level of speech can be determined for each and every conversation that could ever take place.  So don’t give yourself a hard time if you have trouble figuring this stuff out.  So do Koreans.  And they don’t suck half as much as you or I do.

So here’s my overarching theory on determining the appropriate level of speech to use.  It’s not really my theory, per se.  And it’s probably not original.  I’m sure I’ve come up with this by simply pushing together the bits and pieces of other people’s hard work.  But here goes.

There are four factors which you must consider in determining which level of speech to use.  

  • difference in age between speaker and listener
  • difference in social status between speaker and listener
  • psychological distance between speaker and listener
  • environment in which conversation is taking place

These four factors are not “yes/no” or “on/off” switches.  They are axes along which the dialogue may slide and move about.  Some are a bit more rigid and others leave a little more room for flexibility.  The point is to think of the entire dialogue in context.  The level of speech is not determined by one variable alone.  You need to consider a number of things, and this is why even native Koreans don’t get it right all the time.

Difference in Age between Speaker and Listener.  If all else is equal, your age relative to the listener will determine the level of speech to use.  If you are in your twenties and start a conversation with an elderly Korean man, you are the 후배 (junior) and he is the 선배 (senior).  No question about it . You will address him using 존댓말 and he may address you using 반말.  But the age difference does not need to be large.  If you meet someone for the first time and learn that they are one year older than you, then you should definitely be using 존댓말 when you speak to them.  And it’s perfectly acceptable for the person you just met to use 반말 with you, if they choose.

Koreans are obsessed with people’s age, and for good reason!  It is such an important part of establishing conversational tone.  This is why Koreans will almost always ask you how old you are when you first meet.  It’s a common question that’s built into normal introductions.  Sometimes it takes different forms, though.  One person may come right out and ask you for your age.  Others will ask what year you graduated high school or college.  Koreans have nearly turned this into an art form — with a million clever variations of questions that only serve to determine the listener’s age.

Remember, though, that you must choose your level of speech based on the context of the entire conversation (all four axes).  Age is only one part of the calculus involved.

Difference in Social Status between Speaker and Listener.  If all else is equal, your social status relative to the listener will determine the level of speech to use.  Imagine you’ve been working for a Korean company for the past four years.  If you are introduced to someone who is higher in rank or job title than you are, then you are the 후배 and the other person is your 선배.  If you’re both the same rank in the company but he joined the company one year after you, then you would be the 선배 and he would be your 후배.

Easy, huh?  The problem is in the context of the conversation, because there are always more variables involved.  What if you are higher ranking than the listener but he is clearly much older than you?  What then?  (Hint: You should probably both be using 존댓말 until you mutually agree to drop the formal endings.)  What if you work for different companies with entirely different organizational structures?  Who’s higher ranking?  Don’t know?  Well, then let’s find out who’s older!

Remember, you choose the level of speech based on several variables, not just one.

Psychological Distance between Speaker and Listener.  Okay, this is a little trickier to explain.  This axis ranges from ‘Complete Stranger’ at one end all the way up to things like best friends, intimate lovers, and family members at the other.  This is essentially how “close” you and the listener are.  And it can completely trump the age and social status factors already discussed.  For example, I once met a young lady who owned a tiny little coffee shop in Seoul.  She was in her twenties and I was in my mid-thirties.  But we had mutual interests and soon became good friends.  It wasn’t long before we were speaking to one another in 반말.  I was older than her, so if we hadn’t been close, she should have been using 존댓말 with me.  I, being older, had a slightly more established and traditional career, so my social status would have also demanded that she address me with 존댓말.  However, once we became friends that changes.  Friends don’t speak to one another in 존댓말.  Work colleagues do.  Acquaintances do.  But not friends.  Friends use 반말.

Level of speech in Korean is such a strong indicator of psychological closeness that it is, literally, a precursor to becoming friends.  If I had never invited my new friend to drop the formal ending when she spoke to me, we wouldn’t have become friends at all.  Likewise, if I had continued to address her using formal speech, it would have been a clear indicator that I intended to keep a certain measure of psychological distance between us.  So, not only does the level of speech indicate the psychological distance between speaker and listener, it can also determine it.

Environment in which the Conversation Takes Place.  Just as psychological distance can override considerations of age and social status, the environment where the conversation takes place can make the appropriate level of speech rise or fall.  Consider the example above of my friend in her twenties, me in my mid-thirties.  Even though we were friends and completely comfortable using 반말 with one another, there are many situations where it would be inappropriate to do so.  As I mentioned, she owned a coffee shop and I would often stop in from time to time, sometimes bringing along work colleagues or other friends who are roughly the same age as I am.  In this situation it would be inappropriate for her to walk up and address me using 반말.  In the context of this situation, she was the service provider (albeit the proprietor as well) and I was the customer.  Furthermore, the fact that I was with several others who were also older than her dictated that she use 존댓말 in this situation.

Now, imagine that one day we decide to meet at a nearby department store.  I arrive to find that she is finishing up something else with several of her friends — all of whom are younger than I am.  You might think that because she is younger, and because I could be considered socially higher in status, that it would be perfectly acceptable to use 반말 with her in this situation.  I mean, we’re really good friends who use 반말 all the time, so what’s the problem?  The problem is the context of the conversation.  Imagine what her friends would think about an older guy walking up and speaking to her in such a blunt or intimate manner.  It would probably imply a much closer (i.e. physical) relationship which was not the case.  Instead, the polite thing would be to use 존댓말 while her friends were present and then shift down into 반말 once it was just me and her again.

Now I’m a caucasian, an obvious foreigner, so I could probably get away with this sort of faux pas.  Her friends would just think I didn’t know any better.  But I should know better.  And if you don’t want to suck at Korean, you need to know better, too!

This principle can work in the opposite direction as well.  Let’s consider colleagues who work together in a small office setting.  Imagine a setting where there is a section chief and several worker bees all working in the same open office space.  They see each other every hour of every day, interacting with one another throughout the course of normal business.  Although the junior employees should, according to the other rules, be using 존댓말 with the section chief, they might, instead, be using 반말 — and that’s okay!  People who work closely together like this frequently use 반말 with one another, and it’s not the least bit out of place.  It shows familiarity and a certain closeness.  If, however, the Department Head pays a visit to the office, you can guarantee that the junior employees will all be using 존댓말 with both the Department Head and the Section Chief.  Why?  Because the presence of the department head changes the context of the conversation and demands that a higher level of speech be used between speakers and listeners.

We’ve covered a lot of info here and I want you to take time to digest this.  We’ll cover other elements of 반말 in future lessons but, for now, I think you deserve a break.  As you go about your day and engage in conversations, I want you to think about the four factors I outlined above and think about what level of speech would be appropriate in each situation.  Remember, you need to consider the entire conversation, composed of the following four areas:

  • difference in age between speaker and listener
  • difference in social status between speaker and listener
  • psychological distance between speaker and listener
  • environment in which conversation is taking place

It’s a lot to take in, but once you get the hang of routinely considering these four elements, choosing the appropriate level of speech will get much, much easier.  Good luck!  (You’ll probably need it!)

Irregular Verbs with ‘ㅎ’ (ㅎ 불규칙 동사)

It’s a holiday weekend.  All sun and clear blue skies.  July 4th — that means grilling outdoors, fireworks, and pilsner.  Good times with family and friends.  And you.  You, sitting there at your computer screen.  You, wondering why you’re even wasting your time at a site called YouSuckAtKorean.  You want to know about irregular verbs?  Really?  Is this how I’m supposed to be spending my Sunday night?

Well, fortunately for you, I am completely lame and have no social life.  Consequently, I have more than enough time to teach you a thing or two.  Let’s get to it, then.

There’s lots of good news about learning irregular ‘ㅎ’ verbs.

  • There really aren’t a whole lot of them.  In fact, it’s pretty much just colors and the verbs 이렇다, 그렇다, 저렇다, 어떻다.
  • They are all descriptive verbs (aka adjectives).
  • And inflecting them is really not that difficult.

Here are the rules you need to remember:

  1. When the verb ending begins with 어/아 or 었/았, then you drop the ‘ㅎ’ and add a ‘ㅣ’.
  2. When the verb ending begins with any other vowel, then you simply drop the ‘ㅎ’.  That’s it.
  3. Best of all, when the verb ending begins with a consonant you make no changes whatsoever.  The verb stem will keep its ‘ㅎ’.

Rules are pretty confusing, though.  And I’ve never been very good at following them myself.  For instance, I’m told that as a general rule you should not insult your target audience in the title of your website.  At least not if you want them to come back.  Touché.  So how about some examples instead?

그분의 우산은 노랗습니다.  (That person’s umbrella is yellow.)
Here the verb ending begins with a consonant, -습니다.  Therefore, we don’t need to do anything special or “irregular” to the verb.  Just inflect as usual.

그분의 우산은 노래요.  (That person’s umbrella is yellow.)
In this example, however, we’ve chosen to use the verb ending -어요.   Because it ends in 어, we need to drop the ‘ㅎ’ and add an ‘ㅣ’.  To put it a bit differently, 노랗+어요 = 노래요.

오늘 하늘은 너무나 맑고 파라니까 밖에 나가야 돼요.  (Because the sky is so clear and blue today, we should go outside.)
The verb ending in this example is -(으)니까.  Since it begins with a vowel but is not 어/아,  we simply drop the ‘ㅎ’.  Nothing more.

But there are two tricky aspects to learning irregular ‘ㅎ’ verbs.  The first is that 이렇다, 그렇다, 저렇다, and 어떻다 convert to 이래-, 그래-, 저래-, and 어때-, respectively.  When you add the ‘ㅣ’ to these four verbs they form the ‘ㅐ’ vowel rather than the ‘ㅔ’ you might expect.

The second tricky thing to keep in mind is this.  As is the case with all seven types of irregular verbs, some of them might look irregular but are not irregular.  Bastards!  For instance, the descriptive verbs 많다 (to be a lot, many) and 좋다 (to be good) are not irregular.  So the above rules do not apply.


Irregular Verbs with ‘ㅅ’ (ㅅ 불규칙 동사)

Don’t panic, but there are seven types of irregular verbs in Korean.  The ‘ㅅ’ irregular verb is one of them.  If you’re a beginner who’s only now coming to grips with converting verbs to their -어요 form, then this is probably overwhelming news.  You may want to sit down for this.  Drink a tall glass of water.  And a valium probably wouldn’t hurt at this point either.  Just relax.  I’m going to get you through this.

The good news is that there really aren’t a whole lot of ‘ㅅ’ irregular verbs.  Really.  The other bit of good news is that ‘ㅅ’ irregular verbs are really easy to use.

Let’s start off with the rule for irregular ‘ㅅ’ verbs, plain and simple:

  • When the verb ending starts with a vowel, you drop the ‘ㅅ’.
  • If the verb ending does not start with a vowel, then you don’t have to do anything.  (Hooray for laziness!)

Let’s take a look at two example sentences using the verb 낫다, which means “to get better”, “to be cured”, “to get over”, etc.

상처가 아직 낫지 않았어요.  (The wound has not healed yet.)
In this example you’re connecting the irregular ‘ㅅ’ verb 낫다 to the negative verb ending -지 않다.  Because this ending does not begin with a vowel, you don’t have to do anything special to the verb stem.

그녀의 병은 금방 나을 거예요.  (She’ll get better soon.)
In this example, however, you’re connecting the irregular ‘ㅅ’ verb 낫다 to the future verb ending -을 거예요, which indicates future tense.  Because this ending begins with a vowel, you have to drop the ‘ㅅ’ at the end of the verb stem.

Here are some other common ‘ㅅ’ verbs:
붓다 (to pour into) (to swell, puff up)
젓다 (to beat, whip, stir vigorously)
짓다 (to build, construct) (to write, compose) (to fabricate, make up, invent) (to name something)

And an example sentence for each of these:

발목이 부었어요.  (My ankle swelled up.)  The past tense verb ending, -었어요, begins with a vowel so we simply drop the ‘ㅅ’ at the end of the verb 붓다.

오분 후에 오트밀을 넣고 저으세요.  (In five minutes, please stir in the oatmeal.)  Again, the verb ending -으세요 begins with a vowel so we drop the ‘ㅅ’ at the end of the verb stem.

남자들이 건물을 짓고 있어요.  (The men are constructing a building.)  Notice that we don’t drop the ‘ㅅ’ here because the verb ending does not begin with a vowel.

Easy, right?  Umm…. but now for the bad news.  (Hey, it’s Korean!  Of course there’s bad news.  It’s like they intentionally booby-trapped the entire language to make it more difficult for foreigners like you and I.)  The bad news is that there are lots of verbs that end in ‘ㅅ’ that are not irregular ‘ㅅ’ verbs.  In other words, just because a verb stem ends with a ‘ㅅ’ does not necessarily mean it’s a ‘ㅅ’ irregular verb.

The verb 벗다 means to take off or remove clothing.  But it is not an irregular ‘ㅅ’ verb.  Consequently, whether the verb ending begins with a consonant or a vowel doesn’t matter.  You will never drop the ‘ㅅ’ at the end of the verb stem.

모자를 벗으세요.  (Please take off your hat.)

Likewise, the verb 웃다 (to laugh) is also not an irregular ‘ㅅ’ verb.  Again, you don’t drop the ‘ㅅ’ at the end of this verb stem either.

지금은 웃을 때가 아니에요.  (This is not the time to be laughing.)

So there you have it.  And don’t worry about sucking at Korean.  We all suck.  It’s cool.  Eventually you’ll just forget that you suck at all.  And maybe you’ll even grow so arrogant that you start your own website that (ha!) supposedly teaches a little Korean.  What a pompous ass you’ll be then.

Two flavors of 거든

Think Korean grammar is confusing yet?  Just wait.  Here’s one of my favorite grammar patterns — Vst + 거든.  What does it mean?  Well, that depends.  Because the pattern 거든 has two very different meanings, one completely unrelated to the other.  Luckily for us, when listening to or reading Korean we can easily tell the difference between the two meanings because one is used as a conjunction (in the middle of a sentence) and one is used as a sentence-final verb (at the end of a sentence).

When 거든 is used as a conjunction it means “if” or “when” and sets up a conditional statement.  In this regard it’s a lot like the patterns -(으)면 and -다가는.  But the unique thing about 거든 is that it’s almost always followed by a proposition or command.

혹시 서울에 오거든 전화 하세요.
If you by any chance come to Seoul, please call me.

그 시험에 합격하거든 나 한테 알려 줘.
If you pass the test let me know.

When 거든(요) is used as a sentence-final ending it sort of functions like an exclamation and means “you know” or “you see”.  It also implies a causal connection, so sometimes it can be translated as “because”.  It can be used with both present and past tense (었거든), and it can be used with action verb stems, descriptive verb stems, and nouns.

가:  김치 왜 안 먹어?  (Why don’t you eat kimchi?)
나:  매운 음식 싫어하거든.  (I hate spicy food, you know.) or (Because I don’t like spicy food.)

1년 뒤에 내가 헤어지자고 했거든.
I broke it off after a year, you know.

네 걱정을 많이 했거든요.
We were really worried about you, you know.

Now, there just so happens to be one more usage of 거든 which is much more limited.  You can use 거든 in the sentence-final position when you want to introduce a new topic of conversation or some piece of information that the listener is not yet aware of.  In this regard, it also functions a lot like the English phrase “you know”.

문신을 했거든!
I got a tattoo!

가:  어제 명동에 갔거든요.  (You know, yesterday I went to Myeong-Dong.)
나:  그런데요?  (Really?)
가:  응, 거기서 친구를 우연히 만났어요.  (Yep, and I ran into a friend there.)


The conjunctions 다가, 어다가 and 었다가

There are lots of grammatical patterns in Korean, and a lot of them show how one event follows another.  For instance: -어서, -고, -자, -자마자, -고 나서, etc.  Well 다가 pretty much does the same thing, but with a twist.  You see, 다가 is used when the first action is either interrupted or completed before you switch over to the new action.  Does that sound confusing?  Of course it does.  This time, though, it doesn’t have much to do with you sucking at Korean.  It’s pretty much just the fact that Korean is awfully difficult for English speakers to learn, and it makes us all suck.  At first.  But you’re getting better, right?  That’s why you’re here, right?  So that you don’t suck anymore.

Let’s cover some major points about this pattern before we move on the some examples.

  • The pattern AVst + 다가 is used when the action of the first clause is interrupted by the event or action of the final clause.  The actions of the two clauses do not overlap in any way.  Whether or not you eventually completed the first action is unclear, because this pattern is used to show an interruption of events.
  • The pattern AVst + 었/았 다가 is used when you want to indicate that the action of the first clause was completed prior to the event in the final clause.
  • The subjects of both clauses are almost always the same.
  • The final syllable 가 is frequently dropped in colloquial conversation.

Clear as mud?  Don’t worry.  The examples will make it easier.

한국어를 공부하다가 전화를 받아요.
I was studying Korean when I got a phone call.  (You were studying when the phone rang, but your studies were interrupted by the phone call.  It’s unclear whether or not you ever went back to finishing your studies.)

슈퍼에 갔다가 연구실에 들르겠어요.
I’ll go to the supermarket and then stop by your office [after that].  (The action of ‘going to the supermarket’ will be completed prior to switching gears and stopping by the listener’s office.)

모퉁이를 돌아 가다가 그녀와 우연히 만났어요.
I turned around the corner and bumped into her.  (The action of turning around the corner came to an abrupt end as you switched over to a new action — bumping into your friend.

백화점에 갔다가 그녀 와 우연히 만났어요.
I went to the store and bumped into her.  (Here it’s made clear that the action of the first clause was completed prior to switching over to the action of the final clause.  In other words, you actually made it to the store before bumping into her.)

Well, I hope that’s been helpful.  Unfortunately, though, that’s not the whole story.  You see, both -다가 and -었다가 each have an additional meaning associated with them.  Please don’t scream.  You can stop reading right now if you want to.  I completely understand.  You can focus on memorizing the “switching/changing/converting” usage of 다가 (above) and then come back to this other stuff later.  But… you suck at Korean.  And my guess is that you are also reckless and like to live dangerously.  (Why else would you be crazy enough to study something this difficult?)  So let me just get this out of the way now.  Let me teach you the other meanings of 다가 and 었다가 so that you have the whole picture, and not just the simple but inaccurate picture that many textbooks would like you to have.

The pattern 다가 is also used when the action of the first clause continues, but the action of the second clause happens at the same time.  In this usage it is completely, absolutely, 100% interchangeable with the pattern -(으)면서.  For example:

영화를 보다가 웃어요.  (= 영화를 보면서 웃어요.)
I was watching a movie and laughed.  [or] I laughed as I watched a movie.

운전 하다가 여자친구에 대해 생각했어요.  (= 운전 하면서 여자친구에 대해 생각했어요.)
While I was driving I thought of my girlfriend.

And now our second exception.  The pattern 었다가 can also be used when, after completing the action in the first clause, something opposite, unfortunate, contradictory, or unplanned occurs in the final clause.

그는 이중 주차를 했다가 경찰에 주차위반 딱지를 떼였다.
He double-parked his car and he got a parking ticket from the police.
(In this case, something unplanned and unfortunate happens in the final clause as a result of the action in the first clause.)

그녀에게 데이트 신청을 했다가 거절당했어요.
I asked Nancy out, but she turned me down.
(In this example the opposite or contradictory result in the final clause occurs after the action of the first clause.)

그는 화가나면 방안을 왔다 갔다 해요.
When he’s angry he paces back and forth across the room.
(Here the subject does one action and then it’s opposite action (coming then going, repeatedly).

책을 사러 서점에 갔다가 볼펜도 샀아요.
I went to the bookstore to buy a book, but I also bought a pen.
(The action of buying a pen was unplanned and unanticipated.  The subject did not have any intention of buying a pen at the time they went to the bookstore.)

Wait just a minute!!  What the hell happened to the pattern -어다가?  I thought you were going to cover that too.

Hmm… I was kinda’ hoping you’d forgotten about that.  Well the bad news is that, yes, the pattern AVst + 어다가 has a different meaning than plain ol’ 다가 and its more complicated brother 었다가.  The good news is that it’s the easiest to keep track of because it only has one meaning (that I’m aware of.)  Just remember that for this usage the conjunction requires the 어/아/여 before the 다가.

The pattern AVst + 어다가 is used when a shift or change in location occurs.  No interruption is implied.  No negative or opposite outcome is implied.  Just a change in physical location between the first clause and final clause.  The action of the first clause is connected or continued in the second clause, but in a different location.  Easy, right?  Here are a couple examples:

햄버거 사다가 먹었어요.
I bought a hamburger and ate it.
The pattern  어다가 makes it clear to the listener that the location where you bought the burger is different than the location where you ate the burger.

계산서 좀 갖다 주세요.
Check please!  [or] Please bring me the check.
Literally, this verb means get the check (which is somewhere other than here) and bring it to me (here).

식사 만들어다가 친구한테 배달했어요.
I made a meal and then delivered it to my friend.
The pattern 어다가 signals a change in location from the first clause to the final clause.

Wow!  That’s a lot of stuff to remember about 다가, huh?  Not to undermine my entire lesson here, but sometimes I’m not even sure if I understand all the different usages of this pattern.  But at least we’re in this together.  Suck on, friends.  Suck on.

The conjunctions 자 and 자마자.

Today I’m going to try and explain the conjunctions 자 and 자마자.  These are sometimes translated as “after”, “right after”, and “as soon as”.  One important thing to remember here is that they connect two clauses — one which happens after the other.  But, unlike the patterns -고, -어서, and -고 나서, the patterns 자 and 자마자 connect actions that occur much more closely to one another in time.  Or, put another way, the temporal distance between the two clauses is much smaller.  Hence the translations “right after”, “as soon as”.

For example:
앉고 잠들었어요.  I sat down and fell asleep.  (Maybe you fell asleep 5 seconds after sitting down, or maybe it was 5 hours.)
않자마자 잠들었어요.  As soon as I sat down I fell asleep.  (Closer to 5 seconds or 5 minutes after sitting down; not 5 hours.)

The good part about these two patterns is that they are simple to create.  You simply add 자 or 자마자 to the verb stem.  That’s it.

The bad part is that these patterns do not mean exactly the same thing.  I’ve seen a few Korean textbooks that will tell you they are the same pattern, as if 자 is merely a shortened, more colloquial version of 자마자.   I’m sorry, but this isn’t true.

So here’s what you have to remember:

Vst + 자마자

  • Connects two actions temporally (i.e. in time).  One happens right after the other.
  • There is no tense marking on the first clause (i.e. the part before 자마자).
  • The subject of the first and second clause are almost always the same.
  • Does not imply that one action resulted in the other.
  • More common in colloquial speech than -자.
  • The tense on the final clause (i.e. the end of the sentence) can be in the past, present or future.

Vst + 자

  • Connects two actions temporally (just like -자마자)
  • There is no tense marking on the first clause (just like -자마자)
  • The action in the second clause must be the result of the action in the first clause.  The first clause is the condition or reason that makes the second clause possible.
  • 자 is not as colloquial sounding as 자마자.
  • The tense in the final clause can only be in the past tense.

Given what I’ve told you above, you should also be able to figure out the following:
You can always replace -자 with -자마자.  However, you cannot always replace -자마자 with -자.

How about a few examples, then, to wrap this all up.

창문을 열자 바람이 들어왔어요.
As soon as I opened the window the breeze came in.  (Here, 자 indicates that the first action — opening the window — directly led to the second action — the wind coming in.  The second clause is a result of the first clause.  You could replace 자 with 자마자, and it would still be grammatically correct.)

한국에 오자마자 한국어를 공부하기 시작했어요.
I started studying Korean as soon as I came to Korea.  (The second clause is not the result of the first clause.  Although they happened one after the other, neither was the result of the other.)

의자에 앉자 잠들었어요.
As soon as I sat down I fell asleep.  (Implies that you fell asleep because you sat down, or that the sitting down was the condition that made falling asleep possible.)

아침에 일어나자마자 식사 준비했어요.
Right after I woke up in the morning I prepared a meal.  (These actions merely happened one after the other.  No causal relationship exists between the to clauses.)


겠 for future or intention

So here’s the deal.  I’m going to teach you how to use the infix 겠 to indicate the future tense or intention.  But there’s something you need to remember.  Textbooks lie to you.  And so does the title of this post.  Textbooks are fond of presenting grammar patterns with headers like this:

Using -겠 to indicate future or intention
Expressing the future tense with -겠
겠 = future tense

The problem is that all of these titles (and their myriad permutations) are misleading.  So before we can move on you need to know the following.  No kidding, make sure you understand this.

1.  When Koreans want to express their intention or the future tense they might use 겠.  They don’t have to because there are lots of other ways to express future tense or intention.  겠 just happens to be one way of doing so.

2.  Likewise, when you hear Koreans using the infix 겠, there’s a possibility that it could mean future or intention.  But it doesn’t have to because the infix 겠 is also used for other things, like conjecture, guessing, or to raise the politeness level of certain phrases.

겠 differs from other forms of “future”, “intention” and “will” in that it is usually used in formal settings and phrases.  겠 usually appears in newscasts (or any other broadcast for that matter), newspapers, and other forms of communication aimed at a non-specific audience.


  • Although you can use 겠 to mean 1st person future/intention, or to inquire about 2nd person intention; you cannot use it for 3rd person future or intention.  In other words, the subject must be either 1st or 2nd person.
  • And although it’s perfectly acceptable to use 겠 in spoken Korean, most people use the pattern ‘-ㄹ거예요’ because it’s much more colloquial.
  • In colloquial speech, 겠 is far more often used for speculation and conjecture than it is for future and intention.
  • The negative is formed by adding -지 않겠어요 to the verb stem, or using 안 (verb stem)겠어요.

In this particular usage, 겠 doesn’t really carry any special weight or other meaning.  (In other words it merely expresses tense, not aspect or modality.)  It simply expresses futurity.

To use the pattern, all you have to do is attach 겠어요 or 겠습니다 to the verb stem.  Here are some examples:

내일은 비가 오겠습니다.
It’s going to rain tomorrow.  (matter of fact statement, no guessing or conjecture.)

다음 주말에 부산에 가겠습니다.
I’m going to Busan next week.  (just matter of fact futurity.  It’s gonna’ happen.)

So remember, 겠 can be used to express 1st person future/intention or to inquire about 2nd person intention.  And while it can be used in spoken Korean, it’s mostly found in broadcasts, newspapers, etc.

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 beginner students 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.

Using 당신 (Part 2)

Really?   You still want to know how to use 당신?  Well, I suppose it’s to be expected.  I mean, you suck at Korean so I don’t know what made me think you’d be any better at following advice or directions.  <sigh>  Anyway, let’s get to it then. 

Basically there are four ways to use 당신.  And you’d better pay attention here — especially to the first usage.

1.  Using 당신 when you want to start a fight.
2.  Using 당신 with your husband or wife.
3.  Using 당신 when the listener or audience is not a specific person.
4.  Using 당신 to mean “he” or “she”.  (Actually, it’s hardly ever used this way.)

1.  Use 당신 when you want to start a fight.

당신 as a very rude way of calling somebody “you”.  But 당신 is extraordinarily blunt and informal, and its usage in Korean is so restricted that if you don’t use it correctly you’re going to end up starting a fight.  In fact, 당신 is used to belittle and provoke someone.  If you’re arguing with someone in Korean — yelling and screaming — at least the fight hasn’t escalated into physical confrontation.  But if you start referring to that person with the pronoun 당신, that’s the equivalent of poking them in the chest.  Now you’ve gone physical.  Now we’re talking fisticuffs.  That’s right.  I used the word ‘fisticuffs’.

2.  Using 당신 with your husband or wife. 

Because 당신 means “you” in such a very blunt and informal way, there’s pretty much no one you could possibly use 당신 with in civil conversation.  Except perhaps your husband or wife; someone with whom you’re extremely close and/or intimate.  No, you can’t use it with your girlfriend.  (Unless you want to fight them. See usage #1.)  No, you can’t use it with your best friend.  (Unless you want to fight them.  See usage #1.)  No, you can’t use it with a subordinate at work.  (Unless you want to fight them.  See usage #1.)  Have I made it clear yet that 당신 almost always sounds like you’re starting a fight?  Good.  If you’re 100% positive that you understand this point, then it’s safe to tell you that you’re also allowed to use 당신 with your husband or wife, as long as they’re cool with that.  If not, you’ll know.  How?  Fisticuffs.

I think it’s worth pointing out that using 당신 (“you”) with your husband or wife is not something that younger couples typically do.  It’s mostly middle-aged and older couples.  There’s nothing wrong with using 당신 if you’re a young couple.  It’s just not normal.  It’s like hearing a 50 year old couple calling each other “자기” (instead of “여보”).  Or like getting a text from a 40 year old woman who still uses phrases like “넹넹”.  It’s just kinda’ weird.

Let’s take a question from the audience.

“But I hear 당신 all the time when I’m watching Korean dramas.  So it must be okay to use, right?”

Yes.  You’ll hear 당신 an awful lot when you’re watching Korean Dramas.  BUT… it’s almost always used in one of the two usages above.  Go back and watch your drama.  9 times out of 10, the word 당신 is being used right before a fight or during one.  And even when it’s being used between husband and wife, it’s usually during an argument that you’ll hear it.  Understand?

“Wait a minute!  I hear 당신 in other places besides dramas.  I hear it in songs; I see it in advertisements; I see it when I walk into TGIFriday’s.  What the hell?  I’m pretty sure it’s okay to use 당신 a bit more frequently than, umm…. errr…. never.”

Yep, you’re right.  And if you’re a singer/songwriter or a copy-editor for an advertising firm, then go right ahead.  In fact, this brings us to the next usage.

3.  Using 당신 when the listener or audience is not a specific person. 

This one is a bit more difficult to explain, but it’s easy to understand once I give you a few examples.  You see, 당신 is okay to use if there’s no actual person physically present in front of you receiving the communication.  Now think about that for a second.  (But only a second.)  In order for there to be “no actual person physically present in front of you”, that means that either THEY are not there or YOU are not there.  See how terrible of an explanation that is?  Now let’s look at some examples instead.

Songs.  You hear 당신 a lot in songs because a song is not one person talking to another person.  It’s a broadcast.  The listener is non-specific.  Even if the song is about someone in particular.  Even if the song is called “Hee Jin”.  Even if the lyrics of my song are “This song is for Hee Jin Lee, who lives at 302-12 Royal County, Apartment 304, Yongsan-gu, Seoul”, and there’s absolutely no doubt about who the song is for.  That person is still not there in front of you, so 당신 is okay.  If you wrote this song for someone named Hee-Jin and you were singing it at a concert that she was attending, it would still be okay.  If, however, you write a song called “Hee Jin” for your girlfriend and then you decide to serenade her outside her window, I’d highly recommend you NOT use 당신.  I’d also highly recommend that your girlfriend actually be named Hee Jin.

Advertisements.  Yes, you’ll see 당신 all the time in advertisements?  Why, because it’s non-personal communication for a non-specific listener.  Even if YOU are there, the dude that wrote the ad is not.  So it’s okay.

Direct Translation.  Let’s say I show you a sentence in English and ask you to translate it for me.  The sentence is, “I sent the documents to you.”  Now, without any further information, how are you going to translate that sentence?  If you knew that the “you” was a teacher, then you could say “선생님한테 서류를 보냈습니다.”  If you knew that the “you” was your company’s boss, then you could say “사장님에께 서류를 보냈습니다.”  But you don’t know who the “you” is in this case.  Which is why it’s perfectly acceptable to translate it like this: “당신한테 서류를 보냈습니다.”

Other uses.  Again, you’ll see and hear 당신 in other random places too.  Just remember that it occurs where there’s either no specific and physically present speaker or no specific and physically present listener.  A random example.  I walk into a TGIFriday’s restaurant and get seated at a table.  On the table is a small card with a Polaroid picture of our waitress, and above the picture is reads “당신의 웨이트리스 박민주 입니다.”  Once again: non-specific audience (just happens to be me this time) and speaker is not physically present.  당신 okay!

4.  Using 당신 to mean “he” or “she”.  

So there’s one more way you can get away with using 당신, and that’s when you’re using it as a 3rd person reflexive pronoun.  What does that mean, you ask?  Hell, I don’t know.  But look, here are two example sentences (taken from Naver’s online dictionary) to get you started.

어머니는 당신의 아이들을 위해 항상 기도하신다
My mother always prays for her children.

할아버지는 당신이 손수 지으신 그 집을 매우 아끼셨다
Grandfather took extra special care of the house, which he’d built with his own hands.

But 당신 is hardly ever used this way.  So infrequently, I’d say, that you don’t even have to worry about remembering it.  Besides, if you tried to use it like this, you’d just end up screwing it up anyway.

And then what would happen?

That’s right.  Fisticuffs.