Korean Particles (~는/은 and ~를/을)

Most words in a Korean sentence have a particle attached to them. These particles indicate the role of each word in a sentence – that is, specifically which word is the subject or object. Note that there is absolutely no way of translating these particles to English, as we do not use anything like them.

The following are the particles you should know for this lesson:

는 or 은 (Subject)
This is placed after a word to indicate that it is the subject of a sentence.
Use 는 when the last letter of the last syllable of the subject is a vowel.

For example:
나 = 나는
저 = 저는

Use 은 when the last letter of the last syllable of the subject is a consonant.

For example:
집 = 집은
책 = 책은

를 or 을 (Object)
This is placed after a word to indicate that is the object of a sentence.
Use 를 when the last letter of the last syllable is a vowel.

For example:
나 = 나를
저 = 저를

Use을 when the last letter of the last syllable is a consonant.

For example:
집 = 집을
책 = 책을

We can now make sentences using the Korean sentence structure and the Korean particles.

1) I speak Korean = I는 Korean을 speak
는 is attached to “I” (the subject)
을 is attached to “Korean” (the object)

2) I like you = I는 you를 like
는 is attached to “I” (the subject)
를 is attached to “you” (the object)

3) I wrote a letter = I는 letter을 wrote
는 is attached to “I” (the subject)
을 is attached to “letter” (the object)

4) I opened the door = I는 door을 opened
는 is attached to “I” (the subject)
을 is attached to “the door” (the object)

5) My mom will make pasta = My mom은 pasta를 will make
은 is attached to “my mom” (the subject)
를 is attached to “pasta” (the object)

The goal of this lesson is to familiarize yourself with the structure of Korean sentences.

The same could be done for sentences with adjectives. However, remember that sentences with adjectives will not have an object:

1) My girlfriend is pretty: My girlfriend은 is pretty
:”은” is attached to “my girlfriend” (the subject)

2) The movie was scary = The movie는 was scary
:”는” is attached to “the movie” (the subject)

~이/가 as a Subject Marker

One of the most difficult things for a new learner of Korean to understand is the difference between the particles ~는/은 and ~이/가.

고양이 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house
(고양이 집 뒤에 있어 / 고양이 집 뒤에 있어요)

In this sentence, notice that the particle ~는/은 indicates that the “cat” is the subject.

However the sentence above could also be written like this:

고양이 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house
(고양이 집 뒤에 있어 / 고양이 집 뒤에 있어요)

The two sentences could have exactly the same meaning and feeling. I emphasize “could” because in some situations the meaning of the two sentences is exactly the same, but in other situations the meaning of two sentences can be subtly different.

The reason why they could be identical:
고양이 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house
고양이 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house

~이/가, like ~는/은 is added to the subject of the sentence. In some situations, there is no difference in meaning or feel between adding ~이/가 or ~는/은 to the subject.

The reason why they could be subtly different:
~는/은 has a role of indicating that something is being compared with something else. The noun that “~는/은” is added to is being compared.

In this example:

고양이 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house

The speaker is saying that the cat is behind the house (in comparison to something else that is not behind the house). The difficulty here is that there is only one sentence; which gives the listener no context to understand what “the cat” is being compared with. However, if I were to make up a context that fits into this situation, it could be that “The dog is in the house, and, the cat is behind the house.”

However, saying:
고양이 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house
…is simply stating a fact, and “the cat” is not being compared to anything.

Another example:
커피가 냉장고에 있다 = The coffee is in the fridge (This sentence is simply stating that the coffee is in the fridge, and there is no intention of comparison)

커피는 냉장고에 있다 = The coffee is in the fridge (This sentence could simply be stating that the coffee is in the fridge. It is also possible that the speaker is trying to distinguish between the location of another object.

For example, perhaps the tea is on the table, but the coffee is in the fridge).

In both pairs of examples (using ~는/은 or ~이/가), the translation does not change by altering the subject particle. Rather, the only thing that changes is the subtle feeling or nuance that something is being compared.

Note that this “comparative” function of ~는/은 can be used in much more complicated sentences, and can be attached to other grammatical principles – neither of which you have learned yet. In future lessons, not only will you see examples of increasing complexity applying this concept, but its usage with other grammatical principles will be introduced specifically. You need to remember that the example sentences given at this level are incredibly simple and do not really reflect actual sentences that you are likely to hear as one-off sentences from Korean people. Real speech is much more complex and it usually is an intricate combination of many clauses and grammatical principles.

As you progress through our Lessons, you will see both “~는/은” and “~이/가” used as the subject particles in the thousands of example sentences we have provided. As almost all of our example sentences are just written as one sentence (without any background, prior context, or explanation of the situation), there is no way to tell if something is being compared to – and thus – their usage is usually arbitrary.

In addition to the distinction discussed in this lesson, there are other situations where it might be more appropriate to use ~이/가 or ~은/는. However, I am not able to fully describe the distinction between these two particles with the limited amount of grammar (and vocabulary) understanding you have to this point. The purpose of this lesson is to give you a general understanding of ~이/가, and to introduce you to the comparison between ~는/은.

The good thing is, even if you make a mistake with the usages of ~이/가 and ~는/은 (either because you are confused or because you haven’t reached the later lessons yet), 99.9% of the time, the listener will be able to understand exactly what you are trying to express. Likewise, if you listen to somebody speaking, you will be able to understand what they are trying to say regardless of if you have learned the more complex usages of ~이/가 and ~는/은. The difference between these two particles is about nuance and does not dramatically change the meaning of sentence.

Making a mistake between other particles, however, would cause other people to misunderstand you. For example, using ~를/을 instead of ~는/은 would (most likely) make your sentence incomprehensible.

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