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How do you form the present tense in Korean?

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Forming the present tense in Korean is a simple two-step process! How the word is conjugated depends on the word stem itself and the formality of the sentence. Although it’s simple, this process is one of the most important fundamentals when forming Korean sentences. Let’s dive right in and learn how to conjugate into the present tense!

Forming the present tense in Korean is a simple two-step process! How the word is conjugated depends on the word stem itself and the formality of the sentence. Although it’s simple, this process is one of the most important fundamentals when forming Korean sentences. Let’s dive right in and learn how to conjugate into the present 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 present tense of a verb or adjective.

Conjugating into present tense

  • The first step to conjugate into present tense is to drop the 다 ending in the dictionary form. What you are left with is called the “stem”:

    • 좋다   to like                좋                  좋
      ⤷dictionary form            ⤷ending      ⤷stem

  • How the end of a verb or adjective is conjugated depends on how the stem of the dictionary form ends. Here are the general rules:

Screen Shot 2021-10-12 at 12.34.41 PM

Let’s see how this applies to some examples:

    • 앉다         to sit                   앉           앉아요 

    • 먹다         to eat                  먹          먹어요

    • 일하다      to work               일하다       일해요

    • 사람이다   to be a person   사람이다   사람이에요

  • If the verb or adjective ends in a vowel, the 아/어요 will combine with the previous syllable.

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 8.17.00 PM1. Words that end with a ‘ㅡ' vowel: drop ‘ㅡ' and add 어요.

  • There are exceptions when conjugating certain irregular verbs and adjectives. Below are some examples:

    • : In most circumstances, the ㅂ is omitted from the word stem and is replaced with either 우 or 오. Then, the new word stem will follow the same rules as ㅜ and ㅗ in the table above, depending on the last vowel used.

      • 춥다 to be cold     추우 + 어요 = 추워요

      • 돕다 to help          도오 + 아요 = 도와요

    • : In some circumstances, if a word stem ends with a ㄷ, the ㄷ will change into a ㄹ, then follow the same rules as the table above.

      • 듣다 to listen 들 + 어요 = 들어요

When conjugating verbs in Korean, there is another step you need to take.

Formality

  • The second step in conjugating into present tense is to use the most appropriate ending based on the formality level.

  • The Korean language uses three different levels of formality depending on who the listener and/or subject of the sentence is.

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 8.22.22 PM

  IMPORTANT

The most common form used is the middle form, or the polite form. If you are unsure which form to use, this is usually the safest bet.

  • When conjugating a word into the present tense form, selecting the appropriate ending is very important in showing the level of respect to the listener and/or subject.

학생이 책을 읽다. The student is reading a book.

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 8.25.35 PM

All three sentences above have the same meaning, the only difference is the ending conjugation of the verb and the amount of respect shown.

  • Low form drops the -요 for a more intimate and informal conversation. This form can be used when talking to children, close family and friends, etc.

    • 뭐 먹어?                      What are you eating?

    • 그 나무가 진짜 커.        That tree is really big.

    • 한국 음식이 맛있어.      Korean food is delicious.

  • Middle form has -요 at the end and is most commonly used for polite conversation with strangers, peers, friends, family, etc. 

    • 이 노래를 좋아해요.       I like this song.

    • 돈이 없어요?                 You don’t have money?

    • 생일 축하해요!               Happy birthday! [lit. I celebrate your birthday!]

  • High form uses 습/ㅂ니다 instead of 아/어요. This form is used for conversing with someone to whom you want to show respect, such as with the elderly, parents, strangers, bosses, etc.

  • When the word stem ends with a consonant, 습니다 is used. When the word stem ends with a vowel, ㅂ니다 is used. (Remember, these are high-formality endings.)

    • 할아버지, 사랑합니다.     I love you, grandpa.

    • 올해 대학교에 갑니다.     I am going to college this year.

    • 지금 김치가 없습니다.     I don’t have kimchi right now.

Conclusion

  • To summarize what we’ve learned above, conjugating into present tense form is a simple two-step process:

    1. Drop the 다 to find the word stem

    2. Use the appropriate ending for the listener and/or subject.

      • Low form (informal) 아/어

      • Middle form (polite) 아/어요

      • High form (deferential) 습/ㅂ니다

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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, let’s practice!

Julie Damron

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