One great thing about learning Korean is that it makes you think about things that are so common, you probably never even think about them anymore.
Pronouns are one of these things. You use them all day, every day, but you probably never even spare a second thought for them.
What Exactly Are Pronouns?
Pronouns are really important in all languages. They’re used instead of a noun or noun phrase. In English, some examples include “he”, “she”, “it”, “we”, and “you”. They cut down on unnecessary repetition in spoken and written speech.
Korean has these too, and you'll learn how to use them in this post.
Unlike English, Korean has levels of politeness. So while in English, there is often only one pronoun – such as “you” when addressing someone – Korean might have multiple ways of doing so. You’ll discover examples of the different levels of politeness with Korean pronouns as well.
I’ll also talk about why you sometimes need to be careful when you think about which pronoun to use when speaking Korean.
In the post, I’ll try to give you a fairly detailed run-down of all the pronouns that you’re likely to encounter or need while speaking Korean.
Let’s see what that looks like:
- First-person singular
- First-person plural
- Second-person singular
- Second-person plural
- Third-person singular and plural
- Use of pronouns – or lack thereof – in practice
- Avoiding faux-pas
I know those titles are a bit of a mouthful, but when you read each section you’re going to recognise and understand what I'm talking about immediately!
By the way, if you want to learn Korean fast and have fun while doing it, my top recommendation is Korean Uncovered which teaches you through my fun, unique and effective StoryLearning® method.
If you’re ready to get started, click here for a 7-day FREE trial.
Talking About Yourself: First-Person Singular
Let's start by looking at how you would talk about yourself.
Korean has two ways of referring to oneself:
Using these is both a little easier and a little harder, than in English. For example, in English, personal pronouns change depending on their position in the sentence:
- I gave the ball to Julie.
- Julie gave the ball to me.
In Korean, the pronoun remains the same, regardless of position.
- 나는 줄리에게 공을 주었다 (I gave the ball to Julie.)
- 줄리는 나에게 공을 주었다 (Julie gave the ball to me.)
However, with Korean, you do have to use particles to denote the position within the sentence, even if the word itself remains the same.
Here’s how to use Korean personal pronouns:
- 저는 (I, formal)
- 나는 (I, informal)
- 저를 (me, formal)
- 나를 (me, informal)
- 저의 (my, formal)
- 나의 (my, informal)
When used with the topic marker 가, these change a little too. So you might see them written like this:
- 제가 (I, formal)
- 내가 (I, informal)
Referencing A Group You’re In: First-Person Plural
Similar to the singular, Korean has two different ways of referencing yourself as part of a group.
They work with particles in exactly the same way as singular pronouns. Korean behaves the way it should most of the time – lucky you! So as you progress through this post, you’ll notice the same rules again and again!
- 저희는 (we, formal)
- 우리는 (we, informal)
- 저희가 (we, formal)
- 우리가 (we, informal)
- 저희를 (us, formal)
- 우리를 (us, informal)
- 저희의 (our, formal)
- 우리의 (our, informal)
One thing that can be a little confusing with Korean, is that 우리 -without the possessive 의 particle – can also be used as a singular possessive.
- 우리 엄마는 김치를 엄청 좋아해요 (My mother really likes Kimchi.)
- 나는 우리 선생님을 좋아해요 (I like my teacher.)
This is something you’ll just have to look out for based on the context. If you’re talking to one person and they are only referencing themselves, chances are it’s being used as a singular possessive.
Talking About Others: Second-Person Singular
Once again, there’s a couple of ways of saying you.
Now, all you need to do is apply the same particle rules that you have above.
- 당신은 (you, subject, formal)
- 너는 (you, subject, informal)
- 당신을 (you, object, formal)
- 너를 (you, object, informal)
- 당신의 (your, formal)
- 너의 (your, informal)
When using the topic particle:
- 당신이 (you, topic, formal)
- 네가 (you, topic, informal)
Notice how 너 has changed to 네, the same way that 나 changed to 내. They sound very similar so it’s easy to get confused. Most of the time, it isn’t that confusing in context, however.
Addressing Groups: Second-Person Plural
Addressing groups is mostly a case of what you just saw above, plus a combination of the -들 particle, and how we made plural first-person pronouns.
- 당신들은 (you, subject, formal)
- 너희는 (you, subject, informal)
- 당신들이 (you, topic, formal)
- 너희가 (you, topic, informal)
- 당신들을 (you, object, formal)
- 너희를 (you, object, informal)
- 당신들의 (your, formal)
- 너희의 (your, informal)
At this point, you’re probably starting to recognise the patterns that exist throughout all of the pronouns covered so far. As you might imagine, the more you use all of these things, the easier it gets, and the more natural it feels. And if you use the StoryLearning® method, you can make your life even easier!
Referencing Others: Third-Person Singular and Plural
Referencing others is relatively simple in Korean. There's 그 for men and 그녀 for women.
Here’s how they look in practice:
- 그는 (he, subject)
- 그녀는 (she, subject)
- 그가 (he, topic)
- 그녀가 (she, topic)
- 그를 (him, object)
- 그녀를 (her, object)
- 그의 (his, possessive)
- 그녀의 (her, possessive)
To make them plural, you can simply use the -들 particle you’ve already looked at.
Truthfully, you won’t see these very often, if at all. They’re mostly used in written Korean.
When To Use – And Not Use – Korean Pronouns
Now that you’ve spent so much time on the different Korean pronouns, the sentence you are about to read might come as a bit of a surprise: Koreans don’t actually use pronouns all that much!
One of the reasons for this is that often, Korean omits the subject of a sentence. This is especially true with informal speech.
In cold weather, you will often hear people saying “추워!” as they leave a building. The literal translation of this is just, “Cold!”. The meaning of the sentence is, however, “I’m cold”, or “It’s cold”.
Another common example of this would be when on a busy subway. People often say, “내릴게요!”
Translated word for word, this simply means, “Getting off!” The implied meaning is “I’m getting off.”
It’s not just self-reflective subjects that are implied. Context is always really important when speaking Korean. Let’s look at the same sentence used in different contexts.
피곤한 (to be tired) 가봐 (seems like/looks like)
tired seems like
While looking at you.
- 피곤한가봐 (It seems like you’re tired.)
While looking at a third person.
- 피곤한가봐 (It seems like they’re tired.)
This can take a bit of getting used to, and some people find it a little confusing.
Truthfully though, it just means that in the early stages of learning Korean, there’s less for you to think about.
What To Use Instead Of Korean Pronouns
And when Koreans do reference the subject in a sentence, they simply don’t often use names and pronouns to address people.
People refer to their sister as “sister”, their brother as “brother”, their uncle as “uncle” etc, even when addressing them. In a workplace, even friends will often use their job titles.
It can be a little complicated for a non-native speaker because Korean has different words depending on if it’s an older or younger sister; if the speaker is male or female; or whether the aunt is related to the father or the mother etc.
This really isn’t too much of a problem for non-native speakers, though. You’ll basically get a bit of a pass here. Koreans are well aware that western cultures use names more frequently, so they’ll just expect you to use their name anyway.
Avoiding Faux Pas With Korean Pronouns
Now don’t panic, because if you make a mistake as a learner, you’ll basically always get a pass. You’re very unlikely to upset someone. In spite of what the fear villain might be telling you.
But it’s worth knowing that it can be a bit of a faux pas to address people using pronouns. Even the polite form of you, 당신, can come across as rude.
It’s actually easier to understand than it seems at first. Would you address the CEO of your company with “Hey, you!”? Of course, you wouldn’t.
You might say, “How are you?” However, in this case, the word “you” forms part of an established, polite phrase. If you actually think about it, it’s not all that common to directly address someone as “you” in English either.
The best approach with Korean is to avoid directly addressing people with pronouns. Use a term of endearment if appropriate, a job title, or even their name.
Yes, I mentioned in the last section that Koreans don’t often use their names, but they know that western cultures do, and will not be upset by hearing Korean learners use their names.
How To Address People Whose Names You Don't Know
If you need to address someone and you’re unsure of their name, you can use:
- 님 – mostly used when addressing teachers or similar. If you needed to address a stranger and they understood you were talking to them, this would work.
- 아저씨 – used when addressing older men, such as a taxi driver or restaurant employee.
Don’t use 아줌마 to address older women. In Seoul at least, this is beginning to develop negative connotations. You can use 사장님 instead. It means “owner”, but can be used to address restaurant servers or shop employees very politely in context.
Referencing others using pronouns is absolutely fine. And honestly, don’t lose sleep over this anyway. Koreans will always be happy to hear people making an effort with their language.
If you accidentally make what would be a faux pas from a native speaker, you’ll get a pass 99% of the time anyway, as a learner.
Korean Pronouns: The Basics
Hopefully having made it this far, you’ll have a really good understanding of Korean pronouns.
There aren’t too many to remember, and it’s really helpful that you don’t need to think about using a different word depending on the position in the sentence, as you would with English.
Don’t forget that the best way to get better at a language is to immerse yourself in it, especially through stories – this is the heart of the StoryLearning® method. As you read books in Korean or Korean short stories, you'll get use to how pronouns are used (or not!) in the language.
So if you get a chance to use Korean pronouns, jump on it. A great example is when ordering food in a restaurant. You can address yourself or your group when you order simply for practice.
- 삼겹살 2인분 주세요 (Two bbq pork please.)
- 저희 삼겹살 2인분 주세요 (We’d like two bbq pork please.)
Language learning is full of opportunities like this. Use every single one you can!
Either way, start using Korean pronouns today!