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Korean Grammar for Beginners: An Easy Guide for Getting Started


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Diving into Korean grammar may seem like a big undertaking when you’re starting to learn Korean.

You’ve probably heard that Korean is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. So you may naturally wonder to yourself, “Why is Korean grammar hard? Is there a way to learn Korean grammar easily?”

Yes, there are some difficult things to wrap your head around in Korean. Yes, you have to learn how to write in Korean.

But there are a lot of things that actually make Korean easy. Even when it comes to grammar.

So don’t worry. I’m going to make it as easy as possible for you to start grasping Korean grammar — right now.

Is Korean Grammar Hard?

How hard is Korean grammar? Or is Korean grammar easy?

Like any language, it’s a bit of both.

For starters, the Korean alphabet, hangul, was actually created to be easy to learn. Hangul was invented with the purpose of increasing fluency in Korea.

I know looking at hangul, it looks like complicated characters you have to memorize like Japanese or Chinese. But that isn’t the case.

Hangul is created by forming blocks with a set alphabet of characters. And you can learn the characters in about an hour. No, seriously!

I highly recommend reading this article and learning how to read and write hangul first. You’ll need it to be able to conjugate later in this lesson.

Besides that, Korean is phonetic and the sounds are pretty consistent. That means when you learn how to read hangul, those characters always sound the same.

There’s no confusing “short vowels” or “long vowels” or how “c” can sound like both “k” and “s.” So you have a major advantage here compared to Korean natives learning English.

Now, Korean grammar gets tricky because there are a lot of ways to conjugate both verbs and adjectives. And the sentence structure is reversed from English (more on that in a minute).

And Korean is a hierarchical language, where you have to conjugate differently depending on who you’re talking to and how polite you have to be.

So it takes a bit of time to adjust your thoughts to forming sentences that way.

That said, Korean grammar is very structured and has rules that are pretty consistent. So once you learn them, it gets a lot easier to see the patterns.

What is Korean Grammar Called in Korean?

So what is Korean grammar called in Korean?

“Grammar” in Korean is 문법 (munbeob). Specifically Korean grammar is 한국어 문법 (hangug-eo munbeob).

한국어 (hangug-eo) is “Korean language.” Whereas “English language” is 영어 (yeong-eo).

This will pop up if you use native resources or textbooks to start learning Korean grammar. But it’s actually most helpful to know when you start trying to Google patterns or double check your work.

Because then you can look it up in Korean and compare it with native text on Google and see if your sentence sounds natural or not.

Korean Grammar Rules: Understand the Basics

Before we start looking at the individual grammar patterns, let’s start understanding some of the Korean grammar rules.

Here are some of the most important things to know that differ from English:

Korean Grammar Rule #1: Korean Verbs Always Come at the End of the Sentence

Korean sentence structure is in a different order than English, so let’s start here.

In English, we form our sentences in an SVO pattern like this:

I eat pizza.
Subject – verb – object

This is true for a lot of other languages too, like Spanish and French. So this is probably what you’re most used to.

But in Korean (as well as Japanese), sentences are formed in an SOV pattern, like this:

나는 피자를 먹어요.
na-neun pija-leul meogeoyo.
I (subject particle) – pizza (object particle) – eat
Subject – object – verb

It can be difficult to start thinking in this order when trying to create sentences, but remember this key Korean grammar rule:

Korean verbs always go at the end.

Korean Grammar Rule #2: Korean Pronouns Aren’t Usually Needed

Unlike Romance languages and even English, you don’t have to conjugate differently depending on what pronoun you’re using.

For example: “I do” vs. “she does.” In Korean, it’s always just 하다 (hada, “do”).

In fact, Korean sentences often don’t even need a pronoun.

If the subject is understood, you can leave out the pronoun altogether.

Going back to our last example, “I eat pizza.” A common question to be asked in Korean is:

밥 먹었어요?
Bab meogeosseoyo?
“Did you eat?”

This is a friendly and affectionate phrase that’s even used as a Korean greeting. Koreans love to make sure you’ve eaten and you’re taken care of.

So if someone asks you, 밥 먹었어요? Then you could reply:

네, 피자를 먹었어요.
Ne, pija-leul meogeosseoyo.
“Yes, (I) ate pizza.”

The pronoun is implied. We know you meant “I” because you were asked the question. So it’s not needed.

Pronouns are mainly used when switching subjects and whenever the person you’re talking about isn’t clear.

But one important note is that Korean does have pronouns based on formality, so sometimes you need to use formal ones. This isn’t as important as a beginner, but something to keep in mind down the road.

Korean Grammar Rule #3: Korean Words Don’t Have a Gender

That’s right — there’s no gender to words in Korean.

So you don’t have to worry about matching gender up like you would in Romance languages. No la manzana or las manzanas like in Spanish and whatnot.

So you don’t have to worry about changing verbs for pronouns, and you don’t have to worry about remembering gender.

All you have to do is conjugate for the correct tense and meaning.

Korean Grammar Rule #4: Korean Conjugation is Consistent

As I mentioned, Korean grammar rules have a consistent structure to them, and always follow a similar pattern.

In Korean, adjectives also conjugate like verbs, and there are lots of ways you can conjugate them to create different meanings. (Conjugation isn’t just for past, present and future tense!)

Once you know the rules of a certain grammar pattern, there are very few exceptions to the rule.

So, what is basic Korean grammar? Here are all the Korean grammar rules to learn as a beginner:

  • Polite present tense: Verb stem + 아요 / 어요
  • Informal present tense: Verb stem + 아 / 어
  • Formal present tense: Verb stem + 습니다 / ㅂ니다
  • Negative form: 안 + verb, or verb stem + 지 않다
  • Making a question, formal: Verb stem + 습니까 / ㅂ니까
  • Polite past tense: Verb stem + 았어요 / 었어요
  • Informal past tense: Verb stem + 았어 / 었어
  • Formal past tense: Verb stem + 았습니다 / 었습니다
  • Polite future tense: Verb stem + ㄹ/을 거예요
  • Informal future tense: Verb stem + ㄹ/을 거야
  • Formal future tense: Verb stem + ㄹ/을 겁니다
  • Continuous form (-ing form): Verb stem + 고 있다
  • “Want to” form: Verb stem + 고 싶다

A note here: polite tense will be the one you’ll use the most and is safest to use in all situations. So start here as a beginner.

I’ll dive more into present tense, negative form, and forming a question in a moment.

But first, there’s also three really important verbs that end up playing a grammatical role. They’re Korean copulas, and they’re irregular verbs:

  • Am, is, are: 이에요 / 예요 (polite), 입니다 (formal)
  • To be, to have: 있다
  • To not be, to not have: 없다

Korean Grammar Rule #5: Age Plays a Huge Role in Politeness and Grammar

Did you notice above how there were 3 levels of conjugating verbs? Polite, informal, and formal.

That’s because Korean is a hierarchical language, where age and social status play a big role in how you speak.

If you’re speaking to someone older than you — even by just a year or two — you should use more formal speech.

If you’ve ever watched a Korean drama, then you may have heard a character complain, “Why are you speaking to me so informally??”

This is a common trope where the male or female lead will speak informally out of insolence to the other lead character. They inevitably fall for each other later, though, so I guess the insolence pays off!

In general, the polite level of speech is appropriate for most situations.

Conjugating Korean Verbs in Present Tense

Okay, so let’s look at the most basic Korean grammar conjugation: present tense.

First we need to identify the verb stem. The verb stem is found by dropping the final 다 of the verb.

먹다 → 먹
meokdameok

Now let’s start with formal polite tense. If a verb stem ends in a vowel, we add ㅂ니다 to the stem. If it ends in a consonant, we add 습니다. Like this:

먹다 (meokda, “to eat”)
먹다 → drop 다 → add 습니다 → 먹습니다

가다 (gada, “to go”)
가다 → drop 다 → add ㅂ니다 → 갑니다

Easy enough, right?

Now, for polite present tense. This one is a bit trickier.

If the verb stem’s last vowel is ㅏor ㅗ, you’ll add 아요. If it’s anything else, use 어요.

먹다 (meokda, “to eat”)
먹다 → drop 다 → final vowel isㅓ, so add 어요 → 먹어요

살다 (salda, “to live”)
살다 → drop 다 → final vowel is ㅏ, so add 아요 → 살아요

If the verb stem ends in a vowel, you’ll combine it with the previous vowel, like this:

보다 (boda, “to see”)
보다 → drop 다 → final vowel is ㅗ so add 아요 → final two vowels combine → 봐요

가다 (gada, “to go”)
가다 → drop 다 → final vowel is ㅏ so add 아요 → final two vowels combine (they’re the same, so it stays the same) → 가요

Now, present informal tense is easy. It’s exactly the same as above, but leave off the 요.

먹다 (meokda, “to eat”)
먹다 → drop 다 → final vowel isㅓ, so add 어 → 먹어

살다 (salda, “to live”)
살다 → drop 다 → final vowel is ㅏ, so add 아 → 살아

보다 (boda, “to see”)
보다 → drop 다 → final vowel is ㅗ so add 아 → final two vowels combine → 봐

가다 (gada, “to go”)
가다 → drop 다 → final vowel is ㅏ so add 아 → final two vowels combine → 가

Forming a Negative Verb

There are two ways to make a sentence negative.

The first is adding 안 (an) before the verb. This doesn’t work for the verb 있다 (itda) though because it’s negative is 없다 (eopda).

So it’d look like this:

가요 (gayo, “to go”)
가요 → add 안 before the verb → 안가요

Now when it comes to 지 않다, -ji anta, we add it to the verb stem. Like so:

자다 (jada, “to sleep”)
자다 → Drop 다, add 지 않다, → 자지 않다

When should you use which negative conjugation?

Well, the short form, 안, is a bit more casual. 지 않다 is more formal. But this is one of those nuances where the longer you study and listen to Korean, the more you’ll naturally understand which to use.

This also works the same way for conjugating adjectives in Korean!

How to Ask a Question in Korean

Asking a question in Korean is super simple.

If you’re asking in polite or informal form, you’ll simply raise the intonation of the question. In writing, you’ll add a question mark.

먹어요?
meogeoyo?
“Eat?”

For formal situations, you’ll change the ending of the formal verb conjugation from 다 to 까.

먹습니다 → 먹습니까?
meokseumnidameokseumnikka?
“Eat” → “Eat?”

Korean Particles

Last thing I’ll explain here: Korean particles. What are they?

Well, I showed you a couple way at the beginning of this lesson:

나는 피자를 먹어요.
na-neun pija-leul meogeoyo.
I (subject particle) – pizza (object particle) – eat

는 (neun) and 를 (leul) are both Korean particles.

Korean particles work a lot like prepositions in English. They let you know what is the subject, topic, and object of a sentence. But they also express things like “in,” “to”, and “at.”

I wrote a whole guide to Korean particles here. But here are a few key ones to know:

  • Topic marker: 은 / 는
  • Subject marker: 이 / 가
  • Object marker: 을 / 를
  • Possessive: 의
  • Time / Location: 에, 에서

You’ll use them after the word they’re marking grammatical function for:

나는 오전 11시에 가요.
na-neun ojeon sibilsi-e gayo.
“I go at 11am.”

This sentence has the topic marker, 는 (neun), after 나 (na, “I”). And 에 (e) to mark the time 11시 (sibilsi).

How to Study Korean Grammar: Best Resources and Textbooks to Continue Learning

We’ve knocked out a lot here! But of course there’s a lot more Korean grammar to learn.

So where do you go from here?

Well, I have a few recommendations for you to learn Korean grammar online.

First up, is 90 Day Korean. It’s what I have used to help me learn Korean, and I absolutely love their course outline. It’s easy to follow, and you start learning how to speak the language right away.

90 Day Korean is by far my favorite language learning course, and I highly recommend it.

As far as textbooks go, I’ve also used Korean Grammar in Use with my Korean tutor YeonHee-ssi from Preply (our review is here).

I found this textbook insanely helpful and simple to follow, and it’s a great price. Korean Grammar in Use covers a wide range of grammar and vocab to learn. I do think, though, that its lack of audio to practice pronunciation would be a bit difficult to get correct without a tutor.

And if you want a Korean grammar check, I recommend Dongsa Korean Verb Conjugator. Punch in a verb, and it’ll show you all the ways to conjugate it and the conjugation pattern to figure it out on your own. Just don’t rely on this to cheat your way through conjugation.

New Level Unlocked in Korean!

You’ve taken a major step toward speaking Korean with ease. Learning Korean grammar isn’t easy (when is grammar ever easy??), but it’s worth it to go from Tarzan-speech to fluency.

Now that you’ve learned the basics of Korean grammar, here’s some ideas for next steps:

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Caitlin Sacasas

Content Writer, Fluent in 3 Months

Caitlin is a copywriter, content strategist, and language learner. Besides languages, her passions are fitness, books, and Star Wars. Connect with her: Twitter | LinkedIn

Speaks: English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish

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