Korean Grammar Basics (Step-by-Step Guide)

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Whether learning Korean or English, grammar rules can be intimidating and daunting. But, once you get the hang of it, things become much easier. Plus, as you go along, you’ll find Korean to be a much simpler language than English is in the interim.

This is your complete guide to Korean grammar basics. This will include participle markers and sentence structures along with some verb and adjective conjugations. The rules change exponentially, which can cause some confusion with newcomers to the language.

The trick is to study for about 30 minutes of it every day. After several times of going over the material, it will become clear and cognizant. If at any point you feel overwhelmed, put it down and come back to it the next day. Keeping your mind clear and uncluttered is essential for absorption.

Initial Concepts

Before getting into the meat of Korean grammar, it’s important to understand the use of honorifics, respectful speech and the culture of addressing individuals based on their age. This influences the verbs and their dynamic place in Korean grammar.

Levels of Respect & Honorifics

In Korean, there are different arrangements of words depending who you’re addressing. There are specific ways and language used to address elders and people of a higher status versus those of your own age group versus those who are younger.

Without getting into the details around the finer social graces, we’ll display the semi-informal polite form of sentences, subjects, verbs, objects and adjectives. You would use this in everyday speech, with those within your general age range or with friends.

Korean Grammar Overlap

Also, what’s challenging about presenting Korean sentence structure is the rule overlap that occurs throughout a sentence. English is very linear, where you learn each part of speech in its proper order. As you’ll soon see, in Korean, it’s difficult to talk about one grammar rule without discussing others in the process.

Ergo, we will be weaving back and forth between concepts. If at any time confusion sets in, there is a huge collection of excellent videos on YouTube from native Korean speakers. Not only will it give you a break from reading, but it will help put the following discussion into greater context.

About the Examples

Another quick note about the examples of sentences is that we made font embellishments to differentiate between English grammar versus how it translates in Korean. The key below is a guide to help you:

  • Subject: Nouns are in boldface type
  • Verb: Action words are in italics
  • Adjectives: Descriptive verbs are in underlined italics
  • Object: Nouns are in underlined type

Common Sentence Structures

Sentence structure in Korean is much different than it is in English. Where we are more used a sentence containing a subject, verb and then object (S-V-O), in Korean it’s subject, object and then verb (S-O-V). This means every person, place and thing comes first, ending with the action done by the subject to the object.

S-V-O Examples

For English speakers, this is going to be a little confusing. Even the literal translation will be awkward because of the way we think of nouns and how they interact with verbs. For instance, instead of:

The cat catches a mouse.

It will literally translate into:

Cat mouse catches.

In Korean, this sentence looks like 고양이가 쥐를 잡다 (pronounced goh-yang-ee-gah jwee-leuhl jahb-da). When you read it in an English frame of mind, it sounds like the mouse catches the cat. Yet, it means that the cat catches the mouse.

As we look closer at sentence structure and other essential grammatical rules, keep the examples listed below in mind. We’ll return to these, in some form or way, throughout this discussion to help drive points home and give some frame of reference.

I am Nancy.

나는 낸시입니다 (pronounced nahn-euhn nan-shin-ee-dah)  

I Nancy.

The cat is smart.

고양이는 똑똑하다 (pronounced goh-yang-ee-nehun toke-toke-hah-dah)

Cat smart is.

The cat catches a mouse

고양이가 쥐를 잡다 (pronounced goh-yang-ee-gah jwee-leuhl jahb-da)

Cat mouse catches.

The moon is bright.

달이 밝다 (pronounced dahlee-bagh-dah)

Moon bright.

The box is heavy.

상자가 무겁다 (pronounced sahng-jah-gkah moo-gob-dah)

Box heavy.

The boy plays games.

소년은 게임을한다 (pronounced sohn-yone-euhn gay-eem-euhl-han-dah)

Boy games plays

I eat the rice.

나는 밥을 먹는다 (pronounced nahn-euhn bahb-euhl moog-neuhn-dah)

I rice eat.

The dog runs home.

개가 집으로 달려간다 (pronounced gay-gah cheeb-euh-loh dahl-yoh-ghan-dah)

Dog home runs

A woman sees the moon.

여자는 달을 본다 (pronounced yoh-jahn-euhn dahl-euhl boon-dah)

Woman moon sees

Women are pretty.

여자는 예쁘다 (pronounced yoh-chan-euhn yep-peuh-dah)

Women pretty are

Subject-Verb & Subject-Adjective Sentences

There are other basic yet very important sentence structures in Korean There’s subject and verb (S-V) as well as subject and adjective (S-A). The good news is these exist in English too but some rules change in terms of conjugation.

Korean Verbs & Sentence Endings

Before getting into examples, it’s important to understand conjugations and how they operate. Korean verbs pack with meaning and inference. In English, it’s all about word choice throughout every part of the sentence with a direct delivery of intent. This is because English is a literal language, making it very bold and outright.

However, in Korean, the verb is the star of the show, with or without an object or subject, and direct speech is contextual. A person’s word choice in this regard marks politeness, formality and other such important information. Subtle praises and insults can also come across without actually saying them outright.

Korean versus English

To illustrate, we usually ask people “Where are you going?” But, in Korean, they ask, “where go?” The implication of “you” and the present tense of the verb “to be” (or in this case, “are”) is an inference rather than a specification.

Part of the reason for this is because Koreans view addressing people directly in the form of “you” to be somewhat offensive and disrespectful. As we’ll get into more later on, this is especially true when speaking to someone who outranks you by age, social status or financial bracket.

Conjugation Variations & Rules

The key to conjugation lies in the last syllable of the last stem. Unlike English, where conjugation depends on the subject (I, you, he, she, it, they and we), Korean conjugation relies on whether the word it ends with a consonant or vowel. There are four fundamental rules to remember when it comes to conjugating verbs:

  1. Every sentence must have a verb or an adjective (or descriptive verb)
  2. All verbs and adjectives have an infinitive form (also known as the dictionary form)
  3. All verbs have a stem (also called the root)
  4. Only verb stems appear in S-V-O sentences, all others add endings to conjugate them

For instance:

  • to eat 먹다 (pronounced mohg-dah)
  • to run 달리다(pronounced dahli-dah)
  • to see 보다 (pronounced boh-dah or poh-da)

Notice on the end of each infinitive, there’s 다 (d or tt). To conjugate, you have to remove this “dictionary form.” Once gone, it reveals the verb root or stem. It’s also important to note that 다 indicates the end of a sentence, statement or idea.

Roots & Endings

For verbs, this is what will change and what it changes to will depend on if it ends in a vowel or a consonant. Using the verbs above, this is what they look like with only their root:

  • see 보 
  • eat 먹
  • run 달리

All verb conjugations will appear with either:

  • 아요 (ah-yoh) for verbs ending in ou (ㅗ) or ah (ㅏ)
  • 어요 (euh-yoh) for all others

Final Forms

  • See: 보 (ends in ㅗ) + 아요= 보아요 (pronounced bod-day-oh)
  • Eat: 먹 (ends inㅓand ㄱ) + 어요= 먹어요 (pronounced mohg-oy-oh)
  • Run: 달리 (ends in ㄹ) + 어요 =달리요 (pronounced thai-yay-yoh)

Subject-Verb Samples

When conjugating, you’ll notice there sometimes is a double sound created by adding the endings. This means the word must condense for proper pronunciation. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, the first syllable added at the end gets removed.

The boy plays.

소년이 놀아요

(pronounced sohn-nee-yeoh-nee dnool-oy-oh)

Boy plays

I eat.나는먹어요

(pronounced nahn-euhn-mogh-oy-oh)   

I eat

The dog runs.

개가달려어요 (changes to) 개가달려요

(pronounced kay-gah-day-yeoh-yoh)

Dog runs

A woman sees.


(pronounced yee-owe-chagkah-boon-oy-oh)

Woman sees

Root versus Conjugation

These conjugated endings are what you will use in Subject-Verb (S-V) sentence structures. You will use only the root in S-V-O sentences. For the sake of visual comparison:

A woman sees the moon.

여자는 달을 본다

(pronounced yoh-jahn-euhn dahl-euhl boon-dah)

Woman moon sees

A woman sees.


(pronounced yee-owe-chagkah-boon-oy-oh)

Woman sees

As given in the example, inference changes due to the presence of an object. The first sentence is specific in that the woman sees the moon. The second has no object and, therefore, we don’t know what the woman sees, just that she sees.

Adjective Conjugation

Korean grammar rules insist on conjugating adjectives in a similar fashion as verbs. This doesn’t happen in English because adjectives and verbs are separate parts of speech serving different purposes. Korean considers adjectives as descriptive verbs. So, these must parse out accordingly.

For descriptive verbs, the accompanying action implies within the word. Therefore, words like “be” are a given for the conjugated adjective. In English, we require the use of a linking verb in some form of tense (past, present, future and etc). What’s great is that these conjugations follow the same pattern as action verbs:

  • 아요 (ah-yoh) for endings in ou (ㅗ) or ah (ㅏ)
  • 어요 (euh-yoh) for all others

Sample Descriptive Verbs

In the samples, notice how the verb and object combine. In some cases, this addition creates a double vowel sound. Therefore, it truncates to makes things quicker, more efficient and less taxing to say.

The cat is smart.

고양이는 똑똑하아요 (changes to) 고양이는똑똑해요

(pronounced go-yahng en-euhn-toke-toke-hi-yoh)

Cat smart.

The moon is bright.

달이 밝아요 (changes to) 달이 밝아

(pronounced dahlee-bahlg-ah)

Moon bright.

The box is heavy.

상자가 무겁어요

(pronounced sahng-zha-gah-moogh-owe-boy-oh)  

Box heavy.

Women are pretty.

여자는 예쁘어요 (changes to) 여자는 예쁘요

(pronounced yeoh-zhan-ehun yep-peuh-yoh)

Women pretty.

Hah-Dah Verbs & Adjectives

There is yet another category of verb exceptions and these are “hada,” or hah-dah, verbs. Their infinitive endings look like this in Korean: 하다. While you will still remove the 다, the symbol preceding it must change from 하to 해as a means of displaying conjugation.

Such verbs indicate a definite action, but they are intangible. So, you could think of it as something between being an action and a descriptive verb to some degree. However, both actions and descriptions can be hada verbs. Oftentimes, they answer questions around what someone is doing.


While these verbs are exceptions, they occur often enough for beginners to know from the start. The following are some examples:

  • To study 공부하다 (changes to) 공부해 (pronounced gong-boo-hah-dah / gong-boo-hay)
  • To think 생각하다 (changes to) 생각해 (pronounced sayngah-hah-dah / sayngah-khay)
  • To imagine 상상하다 (changes to) 상상해 (pronounced sahng-sahng-hah-dah / sahng-sahng-hay)

Descriptive Verbs

When descriptive verbs fall under this category, they imply the verb “to be.” Even though there are other rules for these kinds of verbs, the following are some examples to illustrate the point:

  • To be ugly 추하다 (changes to) 추해 (pronounced choo-hah-dah / choo-hay)
  • To be shopping 쇼핑하다 (changes to) 쇼핑해 (pronounced shio-ping-hah-dah / shio-ping-hay)
  • To be worried 걱정하다 (changes to) 걱정해 (pronounced coke-chong-hah-dah / coke-chong-hay)

No Subject as a Sentence Structure

However, there are some situations in which the sentence structure leaves out the subject altogether. This is particularly true in terms of “you.” It’s very rare to say it in a sentence because the culture deems it as rude or speaking to a superior with an inferior word choice. So, to avoid offense, they don’t often say the word “you.”

Koreans address the person by their name, honorific or not at all. However, they say all the other words involved, but not the subject of the person they’re addressing as “you.” Understand that Korean culture values politeness and they do this with indirect speech.

Conjugation Review & Additional Verbs

While there are thousands of verbs, the table below indicates the ones we’ve done so far followed by a table of additional new ones. It details the English infinitive followed by its verb type, Korean word, pronunciation, conjugation and conjugation pronunciation.

EnglishVerb TypeKoreanPronunciationConjugationPronunciation
To be prettyDescriptive예쁘다Yep-peuh-dah예쁘요Yep-peuh-yoh
To be brightDescriptive밝다Bahlg-dah밝아Bahlg-ah
To be heavyDescriptive무겁다Moog-oh-b-dah무겁어요Moog-oh-boyo
To be smartDescriptive똑똑하다Toke-toke-hah-dah똑똑해요Toke-toke-hae-yo
To catchAction잡다Jahb-dah한아요Jahb-ah-yo
To runAction달리다Dahli-dah달려요Thai-yay-yoh
To seeAction보다Boh-dah (Poh-da)본어요Bod-day-oh
To eatAction먹다Mohg-dah먹어요Mohg-oy-oh
To playAction놀다Dnool-dah놀아요Dnool-oy-oh
To studyIntangible공부하다Gong-boo-hah-dah공부해Gong-boo-hay
To thinkIntangible생각하다Sayngah-hah-dah생각해Sayngah-khay
To imagineIntangible상상하다Sahng-sahng-hah-dah상상해Sahng-sahng-hay
To be uglyIntangible추하다Choo-hah-dah추해Choo-hay
To be shoppingIntangible쇼핑하다Shio-ping-hah-dah쇼핑해Shio-ping-hay
To be worriedIntangible걱정하다Coke-chong-hah-dah걱정해Coke-chong-hay
EnglishVerb TypeKoreanPronunciationConjugationPronunciation
To be happyIntangible행복하다Hang-book-hah-dah행복해요Hang-book-hae-yo
To be sadIntangible슬퍼하다Seuhl-peuh-hah-dah슬퍼해요Seul-peuh-hay-oh
To be angryIntangible화나게하다Hwana-gay-hah-dah화나게해요Hwana-gay-hay-oh
To be noisyDescriptive시끄럽다Sick-oo-lob-dah시끄럽어요Sick-oo-lob-oy-oh
To be youngDescriptive젊다Cholm-dah젊어요Cholm-euh-oh
To be deliciousDescriptive맛있다Mahs-ee-dah맛있어요Mahs-ees-oy-oh
To be dark (outside)Descriptive어두워지다Euh-doo-woe-chee-dah어두워지어요Euh-doo-woe-chee-eoh-yoh
To be morbidDescriptive병적이다Bee-yung-cheock-ee-dah병적이어Bee-yung-cheock-ee-yoh
To be funnyDescriptive재미있다Chay-mees-dah재미있어요Chay-mees-oy-oh
To laughAction웃다Oohs-tah-ha웃어요Oohs-ay-oh
To cryAction울다Ool-dah울어요Ool-ay-oh
To goAction가다Gkah-dah가아요Gka-ay-oh
To giveAction주다Choo-dah (Joo-dah)주어요Choo-oy-oh
To readAction읽다Eelg-dah읽어요Eel-ghoy-oh
To writeAction쓰다Sseuh-dah쓰어요Sseuh-oy-oh
To singIntangible노래하다Dnool-ay-hah-dah노래해요Dnool-ay-hae-oh
To liveAction살다Sal-dah살아요Sal-ay-oh
To dieAction죽다Chook-dah죽어요Chook-oy-yoh
To whisperAction속삭이다Soak-sahg-ee-dah속삭이어요Soak-sahg-ee-oy-oh

Korean Particles, Indicators & Markers

The next important component to Korean grammar is particle markers. Particles, in Korean, are characters appearing directly after nouns (person, place, thing or object). They tell you what the different parts are in a sentence and something about the noun preceding it.

There are about 20 of these particles in all, but six of them are the most important. These are 은 (euhn), 는 (neuhn), 이 (ee), 가 (gah), 을 (euhl) and 를 (leuhl). They fall under one of three categories: topic (은, 는), subject (이, 가) or object (을, 를).


When either 은 or 는 come after a noun at the beginning of a sentence, it indicates that noun and its verb as the entire topic of the expressed idea. All sentences following this should involve the topic unless another comes into the discussion.  The rule is that 은 is for consonant-ending nouns and 는 is for ones ending in vowels.

Introductions often incorporate a topic marker. However, they’re also a useful tool to imply a comparison or contrast. In other words, you could think of it as being in opposition to another person or action.

I am Sara.

나[는] 사라

I Sara.

The cat is smart.

고양이[는] 똑똑하다  

Cat smart.

A woman sees the moon.

여자[는] 달을 본다

Woman moon sees

Women are pretty.

여자[는] 예쁘다

Women pretty

In the example below, the use of 은 infers the boy plays games in comparison with or in contrast to something or someone else while also serving grammatical function. You could do this with any of the sentences above simply by changing the syllable behind the subject.

The boy plays games

.소년[은] 게임을한다  

Boy games plays


Subject markers are for when the verb is the central focus of the sentence. It’s common for use when answering a question to an action. The character used after nouns with consonants is 이 and the one that follows vowels is 가.

The cat catches a mouse

고양이[가] 쥐를 잡다

Cat mouse catches.

The moon is bright.


Moon bright.

The box is heavy.

상자[가] 무겁 

Box heavy.

The dog runs home.

개[가] 집으로 달려간다

Dog home runs


Object markers come after the object, hence the name. This is the object targeted directly by the action in a sentence, often performed by the subject. The object markers are 을 for objects ending with a consonant and 를 for those ending with vowels.

The boy plays games.

소년은 게임[]한다

Boy games  plays

The cat catches a mouse.

고양이가 쥐[를] 잡다   

Cat mouse catches.

Understanding the Differences

The major difference between topic markers versus subject or object markers is that topic markers will contrast or compare something. Subject and object markers don’t do this. So, even though there’s a lot of overlap and confusion when it comes to where one marker stops and when the other begins, there are clear rules to follow.

For instance, the three sentences below translate to, “I eat the rice.”

  • Topic: 나 밥을 먹는다

This first sentence describes the subject eating the rice with the inference of contrast to something else. As an example, I eat rice rather than throw it away, make it and etc.

  • Subject: 나 밥을 먹는다

The second sentence centers on the subject eating the rice with the focus on the person. Perhaps it’s answering someone’s question of who is eating the rice. It’s not making a statement in a way that compares eating the rice with something else, as is the case with topic markers.

  • Object: 나는 밥 먹는다

In this last example illustrating the object marker, you can get several pieces of information from it. First of all, this sentence has both a subject and object marker. It tells you that everything in this sentence is relevant and important to the discussion. So, it is quite common for object markers to appear alongside topic or subject markers.

Reviewing the Basics of Participle Markers

Use the checklist below to review the purpose of participle markers in the Korean language. The acronyms and symbols to the left in parenthesis indicate a mnemonic device to help you remember the differences. If you don’t find them useful, it’s advisable to design your own.

  • (TEOV) Topic markers Emphasize Object and Verb
  • () Topic markers, specifically , can indicate a contrast of the action as opposed to doing something else or some sort of comparison
  • (SES) Subject markers Emphasize Subject
  • (?) Subject markers often indicate answering questions or inquiries from another person
  • (+/-) Object markers can appear on their own and/or with a subject or topic marker.
  • (!) Object markers tell you how important the object is to the discussion.


Korean grammar is simple in concept but complex to learn at first. This is because of the interconnectedness in how sentence structure links with verb conjugation. Verbs are the crowning glory of the language, it’s where all the details, meanings and inferences come in.

For the Korean language being notorious for its precision and scientific accuracy, its nuances are quite vague. However, this is a reflection about the culture’s overall attitude toward kindness and polite speech. Even still, it’s a fun and beautiful tongue for anyone to learn. It just takes a little patience and tenacity with a bit of self-discipline.

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