Category Archives: grammar

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.