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How do you form the past tense in Korean?

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The Korean past tense often functions similarly to the past tense in English, indicating that an event has already happened. The simple past tense does not imply that an event or action is still in effect; it only describes a moment in the past. Conjugating for the past tense occurs at the end of the sentence using 었/았/ㅆ다. Let’s learn how to form the past tense!

The Korean past tense often functions similarly to the past tense in English, indicating that an event has already happened. The simple past tense does not imply that an event or action is still in effect; it only describes a moment in the past. Conjugating for the past tense occurs at the end of the sentence using 었/았/ㅆ다. Let’s learn how to form the past tense!

Dictionary form

  • Dictionary form is exactly what it sounds like — it’s the form of a verb or adjective (yes, adjectives conjugate like verbs in Korean!) that one may find in the dictionary. Understanding the dictionary form of a verb or adjective helps determine how the word will be conjugated in a sentence later on.

  • When referring to the dictionary (or most basic) form of a word, English usually puts the words ‘to’ or ‘to be’ in front of a verb or adjective. Korean’s version of ‘to’ or ‘to be’ is to use 다 at the end of a verb or adjective stem. Here are some examples:

    • [to eat]  먹다

    • [to be sad]  슬프다

    • [to be] 이다

    • [to do homework]  숙제하다

Let’s take a look at how to go from the dictionary form to the past tense of a verb or adjective.

Conjugating past tense -었/았/ㅆ다

When conjugating a verb or an adjective in the past tense, follow these steps:

  1. Delete the ending 다 of the dictionary form: this will leave you with what we call the “stem.”

  2. Look at the last vowel of the verb or adjective stem.

  3. If the verb or adjective ends in ㅗ or ㅏ, add 았다 to the stem.

  4. If the last vowel is any other letter (see exceptions below), add 었다.

For example, 불다 [to blow]: after deleting 다, you are left with the stem 불; the last vowel is ㅜ. So, 불 + 었다 = 불었다.

Screen Shot 2021-09-18 at 2.53.10 PM

Once the past form is attached, conjugate 었다 or 았다 in high, middle, or low form depending on who you are talking to.

Screen Shot 2021-09-18 at 2.56.16 PM

*The ending looks different in this box because of the high formality.

Now that we know the rules, let’s look at some conjugation examples!

Screen Shot 2021-09-18 at 2.58.23 PM

  IMPORTANT 

The final ending following 었/았/ㅆ in low and middle form will always be -어(요).

Exceptions to the conjugation rules

  • If the verb or adjective ends in a vowel, the last vowel will likely be combined with the following vowel to make a single sound. See examples below. 

Screen Shot 2021-09-18 at 3.03.27 PM

   Exception!

이다 [to be], 아니다 [not to be], and 하다 [to do] don’t follow this exception to the conjugation  rules.

Screen Shot 2021-09-18 at 3.04.42 PM

  • If the word ends with ㄷ, change ㄷ to ㄹ and conjugate:

듣다 → 듣 + 었다 → 들 + 었다 = 들었다 → 들었어요 

  • If the word ends with ㅂ, drop ㅂ, add 우, and conjugate:

춥다 → 춥 + 었다 → 추우 + 었다 = 추웠다 → 추웠어요

Points to consider

  • When using the past tense with multiple verbs or adjectives, only the last verb/adjective is conjugated.

어제 저는 밥을 먹고 숙제를 하고 도서관에 갔어요. 
Yesterday I ate food, did homework, and went to the library.

  • To form a past tense question, simply use the past tense word with a rising intonation at the end.  

갔어요-->갔어요↗

  • Forming the negative in the past tense is more complicated, because it often requires us to add a word or part of a word. We’ll talk about this in our post about forming negative statements.

  • Remember that the past tense in Korean does not imply that the situation ended in the past or that it is not valid in the present: it simply describes a situation in the past.

  • Sometimes, some English present tense sentences are translated into past tense in Korean. To understand why, pay special attention to the meaning of the words. Here are two examples to illustrate the point: 

    • 잘 생기다: The literal meaning of 잘 생기다 is “well-formed.” When you want to say, “David is handsome,” say, “데이비드는 잘 생겼어요,” not “데이비드는 잘 생겨요.” This is because 생기다 [to form] is a verb, while “handsome” in English is an adjective. Since David’s appearance was formed at birth, it is always used in past tense. Other than 잘 생기다, however, present tense is used for adjectives describing looks such as 예쁘다 [to be pretty]. 영미는 예뻐요 is the correct expression for “Youngmi is pretty.” 영미는 예뻤어요 could also be used if you are remembering her from the past as in “Youngmi was pretty.” 

    • 미치다: The literal meaning of 미치다 is “to go (become) crazy.” So, using the past tense to express “Are you crazy?” or “Have you gone mad?” would make sense. Also, since this expression is not usually used in a polite situation, it is often used with a low formality. Therefore, “미쳤니?” is the sentence you need to use, not “미치니?”

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Adventures in Language, from Mango Languages, is the best place online if you want to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and your proficiency at language learning and teaching. This wealth of knowledge is just a couple clicks away.

Now that we have learned how to conjugate in the past tense, let’s practice!

Julie Damron

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