When you learn Korean and you hear about Korean verb conjugation, you might panic a bit and want to jump straight onto Google to remind yourself what it means.
You don’t need to. You already understand this like the back of your hand without even realising it. I’ll start with a simple example to make sure you know what we’re talking about in this post.
- The cat eats.
- *The cats eats.
Does that look right? Of course not. The second sentence should look like this:
- The cats eat.
It looked wrong in the prior sentence because the verb wasn’t conjugated.
So put simply, verb conjugation is changing the verb to make sure it fits the sentence. In English, that means making sure that the verb fits the person, tense, number, or mood.
It’s actually much easier in Korean than it is in English, for a couple of reasons that you'll discover below.
Here’s what you’ll find out about:
- Levels of politeness
- Subect-verb agreement
- The infinitive
- Present tense conjugation
- Present continuous tense conjugation
- Past tense conjugation
- Future tense conjugation
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Levels Of Politeness In Korean
Although Korean verb conjugation is much easier, there is one aspect of Korean that’s more challenging than English: politeness. There are different levels of formality in Korean depending on who you’re speaking to.
I’ll consider these today, but don’t lose any sleep over them. If you make a mistake, you’re very unlikely to receive more than a polite correction, if that.
Below, let's take a quick look at the three common levels of formality. There’s actually more, including a special one for speaking with royalty! I won’t be covering those as they aren’t commonly used.
1. Casual formality is used with those younger than you and with friends.
2. Low formality is a good catch-all as a new learner of Korean. You’re in no danger of offending anyone but you’re not being overly polite either.
3. High formality is used in public service announcements, on the news, to superiors in a workplace, and to those older than you. Many younger Koreans are moving away from this even in the workplace, and won’t demand it from their subordinates or younger employees.
I’ll give examples of all three of these levels below, but it’s probably a good idea to stick with the low formality first. It will allow you to speak with friends without sounding overly polite, and also won’t offend anyone older than you.
I’ll mostly look at verbs without irregularities in their conjugation. Fortunately, Korean grammar behaves the way it should most of the time anyway, so these will take you a really long way. There aren’t the same huge number of exceptions and irregularities that you find in English.
Korean Verb Conjugation: Subject-Verb Agreement
In English, you have to make sure that the verb matches the subject of the sentence, in person and number.
Korean is much easier because you don’t need to worry about this. Let’s look at our cat example from above, where the verb changed in English.
- 고양이는 먹어요 (The cat eats)
- 고양이들은 먹어요 (The cats eat.)
Notice how in Korean, the verb stayed exactly the same, while it changed in English.
In Korean, you only really have to conjugate the verb considering tense, which makes it a much easier process than in English. I’ll go over a couple more Korean verb basics, and then have a look at how to actually conjugate verbs.
The Infinitive In Korean
An infinitive is another name for a verb when it’s unconjugated. I’ll start with this in each section.
In English, we write the infinitive as “to + verb.” For example, “to see”, “to read” or “to do”.
In Korean, unconjugated verbs end in 다.
- 보다 (to see)
- 읽다 (to read)
- 하다 (to do)
To conjugate a Korean verb, the first step is to remove the 다 ending. Let’s look at how to do that.
How To Conjugate The Present Tense
First, drop the 다. Then, add the appropriate verb ending.
o Verb + 아 or 어
o Verb + 아요 or 어요
o Verb + 습니다 (if the verb ends in a consonant)
o Verb +ㅂ니다 (if the verb ends in a vowel)
The final vowel decides whether 아 or 어 is used. Use 아요 if the last vowel in the verb is ㅏor ㅗ.
가다 (to go) → 가요
Use 어요 if the last vowel in the verb is anything else.
먹다 (to eat) → 먹어요
If the verb stem ends in a vowel, the 아 or 어 that you add to the verb stem will combine with the previous syllable.
- 가다 (to go) → 가요
- 주다 (to give) → 주워요
- 오다 (to come) → 와요
- 서다 (to stand) → 서요
- 배우다 (to learn) → 배워요
Let’s look some examples:
있다 (to have)
- Casual formality: 있어
- Low formality: 있어요
- High formality: 있습니다
가다 (to go)
- Casual formality: 가
- Low formality: 가요
- High formality: 갑니다
하다 (To Do)
하다 is one of the most common verbs in Korean. You’ll use it with nouns to make verbs for many different activities.
It conjugates a little differently than other verbs. Instead of becoming 하요 as you’d expect from the rules above, it becomes 해/해요, except at the highest formality level.
- Casual formality: 해
- Low formality: 해요
- High formality: 합니다
Here’s how you’ll often see it:
- 운전 (noun, drive) + 하다
- 운전하다 (to drive) – 운전해요
Let’s finish with a look at this considering politeness.
운전하다 (to drive)
- Casual formality: 운전해
- Low formality: 운전해요
- High formality: 운전합니다
I said that we would avoid exceptions like these, but this is too important to overlook. Loads of verbs work this way with 하다, so often when you’ve learned a new noun, you’ll often be able to use the verb form.
Conjugating The Present Continuous Tense In Korean
If you want to talk about an action that’s still happening, you can use the present continuous tense. In English, this tense is formed with –ing.
- I’m eating.
- She is reading.
- They are walking.
To conjugate Korean verbs into this tense, you again drop the 다 ending and add the appropriate formality ending. There’s less to think about here because you don’t need to worry about the final vowel.
o Verb + 고있어
o Verb + 고있어요
o Verb + 고있습니다
하다 (to do)
- Casual formality: 하고있어
- Low formality: 하고있어요
- High formality:하고있습니다
보다 (to see)
- Casual formality: 보고있어
- Low formality: 보고있어요
- High formality: 보고있습니다
읽다 (to read)
- Casual formality: 읽고있어
- Low formality: 읽고있어요
- High formality: 읽고있습니다
Leave It In The Past: Conjugate The Past Tense
To conjugate verbs into the past tense, you again need to look at the last vowel in the verb stem. Just like you did in the present tense.
If the verb ends in ㅗ or ㅏ, you add 았다 to the verb stem.
If the last vowel isn’t one of those two, you add 었다.
Much like present tense verbs, some verbs that end in a vowel will combine.
For example: 가다 + 았어요 becomes 갔어요, not 가았어요.
o Verb + 았어 or 었어
o Verb + 았어요 or 었어요
o Verb + 았습니다 or 었습니다
가다 (to go)
- Casual formality: 갔어
- Low formality: 갔어요
- High formality: 갔습니다
하다 (to do)
- Casual formality: 했어
- Low formality: 했어요
- High formality: 했습니다
있다 (to have)
- Casual: 있었어
- Low formality: 있었어요
- High formality: 있었습니다
Look To The Future: How to Conjugate The Future Tense
The future tense can be a little trickier than the other tenses we’ve looked at, as there are quite a few ways to do this.
To keep it simple, we’ll just look at the most common way.
To make the future tense, again drop the 다 ending from the verb and add ㄹ if the verb ends in a vowel or 을 if it ends in a consonant. You don’t need to add anything to verbs ending in ㄹ.
o Verb + ㄹ or 을거야
o Verb + ㄹ or 을거예요
o Verb + ㄹ or 을겁니다
가다 (to go)
- Casual formality: 갈 거야
- Low formality: 갈 거예요
- High formality: 갈 겁니다
하다 (to do)
- Casual formality: 할거야
- Low formality: 할거예요
- High formality: 할겁니다
있다 (to have)
- Casual formality: 있을거야
- Low formality: 있을거예요
- High formality: 있을겁니다
Korean Verb Conjugation: The Fundamentals
Compared to many other languages, especially English, Korean verb conjugation is really quite simple.
It follows a set of rules and rarely deviates from them. Once you wrap your head around the rules above you’ll be well on your way to conjugating sentences in various tenses in Korean.
Learning dfferent levels of formality does present a little bit of a challenge. But don’t forget: the low polite formality will be appropriate 90% of the time, and you’ll get a pass as a non-native speaker in this area anyway.
Don’t let it put you off getting out there and using the Korean you’ve learned! Start conjugating Korean verbs like a pro today!