Lesson 2: Korean Particles 이/가

Lesson 2: Korean Particles 이/가

Vocabulary

The vocabulary is separated into nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs for the purpose of simplicity:

Click on the English word to see information and examples of that word in use (you probably won’t be able to understand the grammar within the sentences at this point, but it is good to see as you progress through your learning).

A PDF file neatly presenting these words and extra information can be found here.

Want to give your brain practice at recognizing these words? Try finding the words in this vocabulary list in a Word Search.

Nouns:
나라 = country

가방 = bag/backpack

창문 = window

잡지 = magazine

방 = room

냉장고 = refrigerator

개 = dog

강아지 = puppy

고양이 = cat

쥐 = rat

펜 = pen

전화기 = phone

커피 = coffee

식당 = restaurant

건물 = building

텔레비전 = television

미국 = USA

캐나다 = Canada

호텔 = hotel

학교 = school

은행 = bank

Adverbs
안 = inside

위 = on top

밑 = below

옆 = beside

뒤 = behind

앞 = in front

여기 = here

Verbs:
있다 = to be at a location

Adjectives:
있다 = to have something

For help memorizing these words, try using our Memrise tool.

Introduction

In Lesson 1 you learned about simple Korean particles. To review, you learned that:

~는 or ~은 are used to indicate the subject (or main person/thing) in a sentence.
~를 or ~을 are used to indicate the object in a sentence.

For example, in this sentence: “I ate a hamburger”

“I” is the subject of the sentence
“Hamburger” is the object
“Eat” is the verb

In this Lesson, you will learn about the particles ~이/가 and specifically how it can compare with ~는/은. In all situations, ~이 is attached to nouns in which the last letter is a consonant (like ~은) and ~가 is attached to nouns in which the last letter is a vowel (like ~는). For example:

책 ends in a consonant (ㄱ), so “~이” is added: “책이.”
소파 ends in a vowel (ㅏ), so “~가” is added: “소파가.”

But, in what situations should we use ~이/가? Before we get to that, I would like to teach you how to use the word “있다” in sentences. Let’s get started.

있다: To have

The word “있다” has two distinct meanings – both of which are very common and important to an early learner of Korean. As you can see in the vocabulary list of this lesson, the words have the following meanings:

있다 = to have
있다 = to be at a location

You learned in Lesson 1 that 이다 (to be) acts as an adjective in Korean. 있다 (to have) also acts an adjective in Korean. At this point, this is important to you for one reason.

You learned in Lesson 1 that sentences with adjectives cannot act on an object. Thus, you cannot have a word with the particle ~를/을 attached to it if the predicating word in a sentence is an adjective (because ~를/을 indicates an object in a sentence).

If this weren’t the case, we could do the following:

I have a pen

I 는 pen을있다
나는 + 펜을 + 있다
나는 펜을 있다 = I have a pen

BUT, remember, 있다 acts as an adjective, so we cannot have an object in that sentence. Therefore, the use of ~을 on “펜” is incorrect. To get around this, we can attach ~이/가 to the object instead of ~를/을 in sentences with 있다. This is one usage of the particle ~이/가; that is, to indicate the thing that a person “has” in sentences with “있다.” Look at the following example sentences:

나는 펜이 있다 = I have a pen
(나는 펜이 있어 / 저는 펜이 있어요)

나는 차가 있다 = I have a car
(나는 차가 있어 / 저는 차가 있어요)

나는 잡지가 있다 = I have a magazine
(나는 잡지가 있어 / 저는 잡지가 있어요)

나는 가방이 있다 = I have a backpack
(나는 가방이 있어 / 저는 가방이 있어요)

Again, note that ~을/를 is not used to indicate the object that a person “has.” Instead, ~이/가 are used.

Remember that the example sentences provided in Lessons 1, 2, 3 and 4 are not conjugated. While one/two forms of conjugations are provided in parentheses below each example sentence, the grammar within these conjugations is too complicated for you to understand right now. For now, focus on what is being presented in these first four lessons before you start to worry about conjugating sentences and using honorifics.

있다: To be at a location

The thing that makes 있다 so difficult is that it can also mean “to be at a location.” In Lesson 1 you learned about the particle ~에 in Korean. You learned that this particle is used to indicate the place and/or time of something in a sentence. Therefore, “~에” is often used in sentences with “있다” to indicate the location of somebody/something.

For example: I am at school

If we wanted to write this sentence with Korean structure and particles, we would write:

I는 school에 am at
나는 + 학교에 + 있다

나는 학교에 있다 = I am at school
(나는 학교에 있어 / 저는 학교에 있어요)

or,

나는 캐나다에 있다 = I am in Canada
(나는 캐나다에 있어 / 저는 캐나다에 있어요)

Notice the very big difference (in meaning) between the following sentences, and the role that particles have in each case. Because 있다 has two different meanings, changing the particles in a sentence can drastically change the meaning. For example:

나는 학교가 있다 = I have a school – this could make sense, but in most situations, you would probably want to say:
나는 학교에 있다 = I am at school

나는 잡지가 있다 = I have a magazine
나는 잡지에 있다 = I am at the magazine (this doesn’t make sense)

We can also use position words to indicate specifically where someone/something is with respect to another noun. The most common position words are:

안 = inside
위 = on top
밑 = below
옆 = beside
뒤 = behind
앞 = in front

These words are placed after a noun to indicate where an object is with respect to that noun. The particle “~에” is then attached directly to the position words. For example:

학교 앞에 = in front of the school
사람 뒤에 = behind the person
집 옆에 = beside the house
저 건물 뒤에 = behind that building

These constructions can now act as the location (adverb) in a sentence:

나는 학교에 있다 = I am at school

나는 학교 앞에 있다 = I am in-front of the school
(나는 학교 앞에 있어 / 저는 학교 앞에 있어요)

Let’s make some sentences:
나는 학교 뒤에 있다 = I am behind the school
(나는 학교 뒤에 있어 / 저는 학교 뒤에 있어요)

나는 학교 옆에 있다 = I am beside the school
(나는 학교 옆에 있어 / 저는 학교 옆에 있어요)

나는 은행 안에 있다 = I am inside the bank
(나는 은행 안에 있어 / 저는 은행 안에 있어요)

개는 집 안에 있다 = The dog is in the house
(개는 집 안에 있어 / 개는 집 안에 있어요)

고양이는 의자 밑에 있다 = The cat is under the chair
(고양이는 의자 밑에 있어 / 고양이는 의자 밑에 있어요)

식당은 은행 옆에 있다 = The restaurant is next to the bank
(식당은 은행 옆에 있어 / 식당은 은행 옆에 있어요)

호텔은 학교 옆에 있다 = The hotel is next to the school
(호텔은 학교 옆에 있어 / 호텔은 학교 옆에 있어요)

You have learned that ~이/가 can be attached to nouns in sentences to indicate the object that a person “has.” ~이/가 can also be used to indicate the subject of a sentence, similar to ~는/은. What is the difference? We will talk about this in the next section.

~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. Earlier in this Lesson, you learned that you should use ~이/가 on the object that a person “has” when using “있다.”

In addition to this, there are more functions of ~이/가 that you should know about.

In Lesson 1, you learned that you should add ~는/은 to the subject of the sentence. To use an example using the grammar taught earlier in this Lesson, you could say:

고양이는 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house
(고양이는 집 뒤에 있어 / 고양이는 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:

고양이가 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house
(고양이가 집 뒤에 있어 / 고양이가 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:
고양이는 집 뒤에 있다 = The cat is behind the house
고양이가 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:

고양이는 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:
고양이가 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).

———————————-

You also might be wondering why “안” isn’t used if we are indicating that the coffee is in the fridge. In cases like this, where the location being described happens to be “inside” of something, “안” can be omitted. You can see the similarities of using “안” and not using it in the following English and Korean sentences:

커피가 냉장고에 있다 = The coffee is in the fridge
커피가 냉장고 안에 있다 = The coffee is inside 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.

Our lessons don’t really get into the use of multiple clauses until Lesson 24. Creating sentences with more than one clause opens an entire other can of worms that you don’t have the tools to deal with yet. I encourage you to NOT read ahead to that lesson. Rather, I encourage you to keep the information from this lesson in mind as you eventually do reach that level.

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. That being said – every Korean example sentence throughout all of our lessons is always checked by a native Korean speaker to make sure that nothing is awkward (or incorrect).

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.

At this point, I would like you to continue to Lesson 3 to continue learning other grammatical principles you need to deepen your understanding of Korean in general.

In Lessons 17 and 22, we will come back to this problem and dive into more ways we can distinguish the functions of ~이/가 and ~는/은. I want to stress that I do not want you to read these now, but you should know that there is more to distinguishing ~는/은 and ~이/가 than is described here.

If you haven’t reached Lesson 17 (and especially if you haven’t even moved on to Lesson 3) you won’t understand what is being described in that lesson. Being able to fully understand the difference between ~이/가 and ~는/은 is important, but not as important (at the moment) as understanding other aspects of Korean grammar. I can’t stress this enough – your understanding of the difference between the two will progress with your Korean development in general.

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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