Korean Grammar Lessons for Complete Beginners

Korean Grammar Lessons


The following is an excerpt from Korean Grammar with Cat Memes ($3.79 USD)

Q. How do people say hello in Korean?

Most people would tell you that you say 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) to say hello in Korean. But that is not entirely accurate. Think of different ways of saying hello in English. People don't always use the word 'hello' to greet someone. Korean works the same way. If you've watched Korean dramas, you may have noticed how the characters almost never say 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) to each other.

Q. Then when should I use 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh)?

안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) is something you can say when you meet a person for the first time. It is a formal greeting between two people that are not familiar with one another. That is why you would never say 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) to your mother, unless you are drunk. Interestingly, you can still use this phrase toward your teachers even though you may have known them for years. How come? Well, the relationship between a teacher and student is considered more formal than informal.

Here is one more thing about 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh). Even though it is written as (yoh) at the end, it is usually pronounced " (yuh)." It is only because (yuh) is a little easier to pronounce than (yoh). Also, Korean is usually spoken without intonation or stress. So 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) would be spoken in a flat manner unlike how the word 'hello' is spoken in English.

Q. What is 안녕 (ahn-nyuhng) and how is it different from 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh)?

안녕 (ahn-nyuhng) is the short version of 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh). This is how people greet their friends. For greeting someone much older, you would have to use 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) and never 안녕 (ahn-nyuhng). We will discuss this topic more in the next chapter.

One major difference between 안녕 (ahn-nyuhng) and 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) is that 안녕 (ahn-nyuhng) can either mean 'hello' or 'good-bye.' On the other hand, 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhng-hah-seh-yoh) is only used to say hello.

Q. So what is another way of saying hello in Korean?

Korean speakers would often say 왔어? (wah-ssuh?) or 오셨어요? (oh-shuh-ssuh-yoh?) when they see someone arriving. Both expressions mean 'You're here?' or 'You've arrived?'

왔어? (wah-ssuh?) is used toward friends and siblings. On the other hand, 오셨어요? (oh-shuh-ssuh-yoh?) is used toward others, especially people who are much older than the speaker.

Q. What are honorifics?

One thing that makes the Korean language difficult is honorifics. Mainly, honorifics are how one speaks to people whom are older. The opposite of honorifics is casual speech. This is how older peo-ple will speak to younger people in many circumstances. In South Korea, age is a very important factor in socializing. This is why not using honorifics can be considered rude and offensive.

So let's take a look at how you can introduce yourself to people your age.

난 캐런이야.
(Nahn kae-ruh-nee-yah.)

전 캐런이에요.
(Juhn kae-ruh-nee-eh-yoh.)

Both A and B say 'I am Karen.' Notice how the first word changed from (nahn) to (juhn). This is the honorific version of the word (nahn), which means 'I.' Also, the end of B is slightly different and longer than the end of A. This form of speech is called 존댓말 (john-daet-mahl) a.k.a. honorifics. The opposite of 존댓말 (john-daet-mahl) is 반말 (bahn-mahl).

The actual meanings of A and B are exactly the same. But if you are speaking to an older person, B is the right way of speaking. (You can use A for talking to a younger person or person of the same age.) However, honorifics should be used when you meet someone for the first time whether the person is older or younger. To make things even more complicated, it is generally considered customary for grown-ups to speak in casual speech when meeting and talking to a child for the first time. This is why sometimes even Koreans have trouble deciding which style of speech should be used.

Q. What are JDM and BM?

From this point forward, let's call honorifics or 존댓말 (john-daet-mahl) 'JDM.' There was an American singer and songwriter named John Denver, whom passed away many years ago. If he were still alive today, he would be over 70 years old. So most people would be using JDM ("John Denver Mahl") toward John Denver.

On the other hand, 'BM' or 반말 (bahn-mahl) is the way you talk to your friends, siblings, and cousins. We can call it "Bieber Mahl" after Justin Bieber. (Again, you should not be using BM the first time you meet someone. JDM should be used instead.)

Q. How do I know if someone is using JDM?

The easiest way to tell is to see if the person is ending each sentence with " (yoh)." Remember how you can say hello in Korean? In BM, it is 안녕 (ahn-nyuhng). In JDM, it is 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyuhn-hah-seh-yoh). Almost always, the JDM version is longer than the BM version.

As an example, 잘 있었어요? (Jah ree-ssuh-ssuh-yoh?) is the JDM form whereas 잘 있었어? (Jah ree-ssuh-ssuh?) is considered BM. Both sentences mean 'Have you been well?'

Q. Should I use JDM or BM when it is not clear whether I am younger or older than the person I am speaking to?

Now this is interesting. Every now and then, you might run into a tricky situation. The general rule is use JDM if you are not sure. It is better to be overly polite than be impolite. This is why many Koreans ask for the other person's age when they meet someone for the first time. To ask for someone's age, you can say the following.

나이가 어떻게 되세요?
(Nah-ee-gah uh-dduh-keh dweh-seh-yoh?)

연세가 어떻게 되세요?
(Yuhn-seh-gah uh-dduh-keh dweh-seh-yoh?)

Use A when asking someone whom looks around your age. If the person looks to be around your father's or mother's age, then B is considered more polite. 연세 (yuhn-seh) is the honorific version of 나이 (nah-ee), which means 'age' in Korean. Both A and B are in JDM.

Q. How do sentences start in Korean?

The word order of Korean sentences is very different from English sentences.

He went home.

In this English sentence, the first word is the subject of the sentence. In other words, this sentence is about 'he.' The second word is the main verb, followed by an object noun. This word order is known as SVO, meaning Subject-Verb-Object. In Korean, however, the word order is slightly different. It is SOV or Subject-Object-Verb. Now let's translate this sentence into Korean.

그는 집에 갔어.
(Geu-neun jee-beh gah-ssuh.)

그는 (geu-neun) means 'he,' which is the subject of the sentence. 집에 (jee-beh) is an object noun, meaning 'home.' 갔어 (gah-ssuh) is the main verb. It means 'went.' So the word order has changed from SVO to SOV.

He home went.

This is the default word order of Korean. Sentences in Korean usually begin with nouns and almost always end with verbs. This is why most Korean textbooks will use SOV sentences as examples. However, spoken Korean is somewhat different. People will usually omit the subject word when they speak. This is because the SOV style is too formal for conversation. So SOV becomes just OV with no subject. That means we have to take out 그는 (geu-neun) from the sentence above to make it sound more casual and conversational.

집에 갔어.
(Jee-beh gah-ssuh.)

Korean is usually spoken this way, which is the reason why pronouns such as 'I,' 'you,' 'he,' and 'she' are rarely used.

Q. But how can a sentence make sense if it does not have a subject? It is not all that difficult to guess what the subject is. Let's look at an example.

영화 봤어.
(Yuhng-hwah bwah-ssuh.)

영화 (yuhng-hwah) means 'movie' and 봤어 (bwah-ssuh) means 'saw.' So the sentence says 'Saw a movie.' But who saw the movie? Clearly, the sentence does not state the person of interest. The subject could be 'I,' 'you,' or something else. But the listener will likely know the answer. Here is a possible conversation taking place between Mary and Erica.

Mary: 어저께 뭐 했어? (Uh-juh-ggeh mwuh hae-ssuh?)
Erica: 영화 봤어. (Yuhng-hwah bwah-ssuh.)

Here are the translations.

Mary: What did (subject) do yesterday?
Erica: (Subject) watched a movie.

Even though the subject can be anyone, it is very likely that Erica is talking about herself. If Mary wanted to ask about someone else, she would have used a specific word for the subject. Let's say Mary was asking about Erica's brother, Kyle. Now the sentence would start with the subject.

Mary: 카일은 어저께 뭐 했어? (Kah-ee-reu nuh-juh-ggeh mwuh hae-ssuh?)
Erica: 영화 봤어. (Yuhng-hwah bwah-ssuh.)

Notice how Erica's response is still missing a subject. Once again, it is because the subject is implied. Since Mary asked about Kyle, Erica's answer would be about him as well. It will be quite strange for Erica to talk about another person when Mary specifically asked about Kyle. But what if Erica does not know what Kyle did the day before?

Mary: 카일은 어저께 뭐 했어? (Kah-ee-reu nuh-juh-ggeh mwuh hae-ssuh?)
Erica: 몰라. (Mohl-lah.)

몰라 (mohl-lah) means 'don't know.' In this context, Erica is talking about herself and not Kyle. Erica is the one who doesn't know what Kyle did yesterday. But she did not declare the subject since it is pretty obvious she meant she doesn't know and not Kyle.

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