악돌’s First Steps to Serious Korean Part 1: Subjects, Particles, and Verbs

악돌’s First Steps to Serious Korean Part 1: Subjects, Particles and Verbs

This is one out of several posts to help you start learning Korean seriously! 

Learn the foundations of Korean grammar and sentence making by learning how to say “I like apples” in two different ways.

Introduction

Many posts that say, ‘start learning Korean here!’ often omit important grammatical foundations. It is important to know how to say “hello” and “I like ….” However, neglecting basic grammatical principles might be a burden later. This post is meant to introduce some basic grammatical aspects of the Korean language. Following this text will prepare you to tackle further material in the future.

You are this person:
  • I know how to read 한글.
  • I am interested in furthering my Korean studies but lack a formal background.
  • I know phrases but I do not understand why they mean what they mean.
  • I know phrases but cannot write my own sentence.
  • I would like a foundational knowledge of Korean grammar.

My personal goal is to offer content that you don’t have to unlearn later. Will there be exceptions to these rules and examples? Certainly. But this is meant to give you a foundation of knowledge, not a set of absolute rules.

My hope, also, is that this gives you the tools to make sentences, instead of just memorizing phrases.

Learning objectives:
  • Understand the basic sentence structure of Korean.
  • Get to know a few particles (조사) and their functions:
    • subject particle, 이/가 (주격 조사)
    • topic particle, 은/는 (보조사)
    • object particle, 을/를 (목적격 조사)
  • Recognize two types of “verbs” in Korean: descriptive verbs (형용사) and action verbs (동사).
  • Learn two different ways to say “I like apples.”
  • NOT master the Korean language today.

** This lesson assumes that you know how to read Korean (Hangul). If not, please indulge in any of these two series: [TTMIK1 / TTMIK2] [Go! Billy  – Learn Hangul in 90 Minutes]

** I am using Korean grammatical terms in this post. Korean and English have different grammar systems, so it is good to recognize the differences in terms. They are not important for you to know today, but they are included, in case you’d like to keep a list of Korean grammar terms.

 

(0) Problem

We’re going to work with two sentences today:

저는 사과가 좋아요.

저는 사과를 좋아해요.

THEY LOOK SO SIMILAR!
THEY BOTH MEAN “I LIKE APPLES.”
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Well, stick around and we’ll find out.

 

(1) Word Order

Basic Korean sentences stick to this order: SUBJECT (S) OBJECT (O) VERB (V). This is different from English, where basic sentences are in this order: SUBJECT (S) VERB (V) OBJECT (O).

English: Akdol likes an apple.

Korean: Akdol an apple likes.

This is common knowledge in the beginning stages of learning Korean. I’m including this here so that we’re on the same page.  However, there’s a bit more to this sentence structure, as we will find out… But this is good background information.   

 

(2) Particles, aka Postpositions (조사)

We have three particles to look over today:

이/가 – subject particle (사랑이, 사과가)

은/는 – topic particle (사랑은, 사과는)

을/를 – object particle (사랑을, 사과를)

Korean uses particles, short suffixes, to mark different units of the sentence. The English language does not use particles. You can easily find an exhaustive list of particles in the Korean language, but we will only work with those three today.

Why are we learning this? Koreans drop particles all the time. And so do many beginner’s learning materials! But I think that’s even more reason to learn these particles… Koreans know which particles they drop. You don’t. These pesky little suffixes are not part of the English language, and it is normal to find them difficult. However, particles are fundamental to understanding Korean grammar and learning them early on will set you up for success in the future.

Why are there two of each? As you already know, some syllable blocks in Korean have final consonants, while some don’t. For the subject particle, 이/가, 이 is used for words with final consonants, like 사랑 (love). 가 is used for words without final consonants, like 사과 (apple). This is further demonstrated for the other two particles in the examples above.

We will learn more about these in the next few sections.

(3) Subject (주어) + Subject Particle (주격조사 “이/가”) + Topic Particle (보조사 “은/는”)

저는 사과가 좋아요.

저는 사과를 좋아해요.

** While we’re on this subject (ha!)… In Korean, plurality is not marked unless it is important. These two sentences only have 사과, which seems to be a singular noun, but it means ‘apples (in general).’ To learn more about Korean plurality, see: [Nojeok Hill (explanation in English)] [UBC.ca]

Both sentences above start with the same word, . 저 means “I,” and it is in a formality level where you are showing respect. (나 is the informal counterpart to 저; 나 also means “I” but it is a casual way of expressing “I.” Read more here [funkorean4u] )

Then what is ? It is a topic particle. What is 가 on 사과? It is a subject particle. Wait, 악돌 선생님, this is confusing to my English sensibilities – and rightfully so!

The short answer is, 이/가, the subject particle, will always mark the subject. In addition, in the absence of a subject particle, 은/는, the topic particle, may mark a subject, like in the second sentence 저는 사과를 좋아해요 ( ‘I apple like’ ).

When there are both a topic particle and subject particle in a sentence, the subject particle marks the subject, and the topic particle marks the ‘topic’ of the sentence. 저는 in the first sentence can be, ‘As for 저 (I), …,” and not be the ‘subject’ of the sentence. 저는 here does not act out the verb. 

Learning when to use the subject particle and the topic particle is difficult at first. This skill is something you’ll work on throughout your Korean career. These particles, again, are a function absent in the English language, so it is absolutely normal to have trouble learning this overnight.

Here are a couple of videos explaining the differences between the topic particle and subject particle. [MotivateKorean] [TTMIK] [Go!Billy]

I suggest that you take the advice of MotivateKorean here: When you are talking about yourself, just stick to 저는. We are doing that in this post.

Moving onto my favorite part…

 

(4) “Verbs”: Descriptive verbs (형용사) + Action Verbs (동사)

aka Predicates (용언) – predicates describe the subject’s quality or actions; predicates state something about the subject.

Before anything, please know that Korean verbs are ‘conjugated.’ In this post, we are using two forms: the ‘dictionary form’ (좋다, 좋아하다), as well as ‘informal polite form,’ 아/어/여 + 요 (좋아요, 좋아해요). For more information on conjugation, check these links: [Korean Wiki Project: 아/어/여 + 요] [Korean Living – multiple conjugations]

저는 사과가 좋아요.

저는 사과를 좋아해요.

Many beginners probably know how to say “오빠 좋아요” and “오빠 좋아해요” without understanding the differences between the two. You may understand them both as “I like 오빠.” Fortunately for us, 좋다 and 좋아하다 are great words to demonstrate the differences between descriptive verbs and action verbs.

While English has a huge distinction between adjectives and verbs, Korean does not share that same difference. Instead, we have descriptive verbs (형용사) that could be similar to English adjectives, but ultimately behave similarly to action verbs (동사), unlike the English adjective. 

I think this is a very, very important difference between Korean and English. Both action verbs and descriptive verbs can describe the subject; whether it is about the quality of the subject (like an English adjective might) or to describe the action of the subject (like an English verb might).

How do I know if a “verb” (predicate) is a descriptive verb or an action verb? Well… To be honest, you either know it already, or you have to look it up. They act very similarly in Korean, so it’s okay to confuse them. If you’re unsure, look it up in the Korean dictionary and see if it says  or 동사.

For today’s’ purpose, just know that action verbs and descriptive verbs are part of the same group and they can do a lot of the same stuff. (Action verbs can do “more” than descriptive verbs, but that’s not so important today.)

a. Descriptive Verb (형용사) – 좋다

As I’ve mentioned, descriptive verbs are words that could be considered similar to adjectives in English. 좋다, can mean “good,” “likeable,” and “agreeable” like English adjectives. You may also see that 좋다’s meaning is “to be good,” “to be likable” or “to be agreeable.” I personally think that the latter definitions, like “to be good,” is a more accurate depictions of descriptive verbs.

In the first sentence, 저는 사과가 좋아요, we’ve already figured out that ‘저는’ sets up the sentence to be about 저 (I), as identified by the topic particle ‘는.’ However, we know that the subject of the sentence is actually 사과, because of the subject particle ‘가.’ Let’s drop 저는 from this example to clean up the sentence.

Now we have 사과가 좋아요. 사과 is the subject (주어) and 좋아요 is the “verb.”

좋다 is a descriptive verb (형용사). (It is conjugated as 좋아요 in this sentence.) 좋다 is describing the quality of the subject, 사과, as “likable.” 사과가 좋아요 means, 사과 (the subject) has a likable quality.

Let’s bring back 저는. 저는 사과가 좋아요. We already know that this means “I like apples.” Combining everything we’ve learned so far, we can conclude that this sentence technically means the following:

저는 사과가 좋아요.

As for me, the apple is likable.

=> I like apples!

Let’s move onto the next sentence.

 

b. Action Verb (동사) – 좋아하다 + Object Particle (을/를)

Verbs have different qualities. This is same for English and Korean alike. Today’s verb, 좋아하다 is a transitive verb (타동사), meaning that the subject verbs upon something (direct object). To reiterate, the transitive verb has three components: a subject, a verb, and a direct object. (Read more on English Transitive Verb here: [Grammar Bytes])

I like an apple.

Subject: I

Verb: like

Direct object: an apple

This is the same in Korean, as demonstrated in our second sentence:

저는 사과를 좋아해요.

Subject: 저

Verb: 좋아하다 -> 좋아해요

Direct Object: 사과

** Why is there a topic particle on 저 instead of  a subject particle? Remember that in the absence of a subject marked by a subject particle, the noun marked with the topic particle can act as the subject of the sentence. Learning when to do this will take time. 

Now we run into the object particle. As the name suggests, the object particle marks the direct object of a verb. Because “좋아하다” and “to eat” are both transitive verbs, they require a direct object. In Korean, the direct object is marked by 을/를, the object particle, as you see in the sentence above (사과 + 를).

Why does the other sentence lack a direct object? Remember that 좋다->좋아요 is a descriptive verb, not an action verb nor a transitive verb. It does not call for a direct object. 

So, for 저는 사과를 좋아해요, we can break this sentence down like such:

저는 사과를 좋아해요.

I like apples.

=> I like apples!  

 

Conclusion

We spent most of our time today learning the differences between these two sentences:

저는 사과가 좋아요.

저는 사과를 좋아해요.

We learned that the fundamental difference between the two sentences are “Verbs” (aka Predicates). The first sentence uses a descriptive verb, 좋다 -> 좋아요, to describe the subject 사과. The second sentence uses an action verb, 좋아하다 -> 좋아해요, to say that the subject 저 likes the direct object, 사과. 좋아하다 takes a direct object because it is a transitive verb.

We also learned three particles: subject particle 이/가, topic particle 은/는, and object particle 을/를. These particles mark a word with their function in a sentence. They are not present in the English language. When we want to talk about ourselves, we will always use “저는” for now, because it’s ok to be confused about when to use the subject particle or the topic particle.

The object particle, on the other hand, marks the direct object of a verb. The Korean “Subject-Object-Verb” (S-O-V) sentence structure matches the English “Subject-Verb-Object” (S-V-O) structure when a transitive action verb is used.

What can I do with this knowledge? 

You can use this sentence structure to say many things. All you have to do now is substitute the nouns, objects, and verbs in this sentence structure to at least say “I like …” or “(Friend) likes …”

저는 KPOP을 좋아해요.

악돌은 케이크를 좋아해요.

Lovelyz가 좋아요.

In our next lesson, we will learn how to use predicates to modify nouns and create more complicated sentences like this:

저는 악돌이 좋아하는 맛있는 케이크를 좋아해요.

(~ I like the delicious cake that 악돌 likes.)

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