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Lesson 3

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Syntax

  • Sequence
  • Syntax
  • Order

The Order of Korean Words

Background

Korean is classified as a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) language due to the fact that most phrases are generally arranged in this order. Of course, while this is accurate, there is still a lot of variation (for numerous reasons) that isn't quite captured by this general description. This, of course, is true of any language thus we need to dig a little bit deeper into more realistic word order use cases, as well as the nuance that comes therein.

Directions

First, review the key words. Then, proceed through Section 3.1 to 3.4 at your own pace. To finish, evaluate your comprehension of the Lesson with the Knowledge Check.


Key Words

Click the word to see a definition/explanation or visit the glossary.

Lesson

3.1 General Word Order: Declarative Statements

When word order classifications are made in Linguistics, these are generally based on declarative statements rather than any other types of statements such as interrogative phrases, adverbial phrases, commands, etc. While this is useful from a big picture perspective, you will very easily come across a lot variation in actual language that does not conform to this general pattern. With that general background, let's dive in!

Subject-Object-Verb

One of the limitations of breaking down the word order into Subject Object Verb classifications is that sentences are often not this simple. Rather than merely being an object (presumably a direct object), these component of the syntax is often a predicate that is not only composed a direct object (if at all), but also prepositional phrases, adverbs, indirect objects, and so on. It does not even take much effort to "disprove" the object part of the SOV definition:  나는 선생입니다 (I am a teacher). There is no "object" in the traditional sense with copulas (i.e., "be" verbs). The same applies when speaking of existence and non-existence: 김치가 있어요 or 나는 김치가 있어요. The verb 있다 is technically intransitive and is not able to take a direct object. The main point is to think of the syntax less strictly as subject object verb and more broadly Subject Phrases-Predicate Phrases-Verbal phrases. 

Table 3.1.1 Word Order and Phrase Complexity


Subject
Phrase
Predicate/Object
Phrase
Verbal
Phrase
Simple 나는 한국인 이에요
Intermediate 나는 한국에서 사는 한국인 이에요
Complex 내가 아는 한국에서 사는 한국인 친구는 기초 한국어를 공부하고 있습니다.

If we look at the order from this more macro level, we can see how both simple and complex sentences fit into this pattern, rather than thinking of there being numerous slightly different patterns (which you will see taught this way in many websites online unfortunately). Moreover, there are many, many simple sentences that simply do not have objects because the verbs are intransitive! 

Since Korean is agglutinating and relies heavily on morphology, word order is generally more flexible (when compared with other languages like English) but despite the theoretical "infinite" amount of variation, the syntax is still relatively limited in the ways the order that most phrases occur in. After all, languages are trying to facilitate communication and comprehension; thus a finite number of patterns are still far more effective and efficient than limitless possibilities. In Table 3.1.1, you can see the evolution of simple declarative statements into more complex ones largely due to the growing complexity of phrases that can make up a subject, the predicate, or the verb. Despite the apparent complexity, the word order is the same; what you really need to focus on is phrase structure within the word class more than generic/simple word order. This is particularly pragmatic since, in conversation, markers are often omitted as they can be easily inferred or assumed, and subjects may not be stated for the same reason. Why say 10 words when you can say 5 instead and still achieve the same meaning? This practice, known as elision, is common to virtually all languages.

Unlike English (and a number of other languages), the same word order, SOV, is the same for interrogative statements (i.e., questions). However, there is more to making questions in Korean than knowing that the word order doesn't change. Move on the section 3.2 to start the journey into the world of interrogative statements, morphology, and stress patterns!

3.2 Interrogatives: Yes/No Questions

In Language, questions are generally broken down into two broad categories: Yes/No and Question-word questions. There are, however, more kinds of questions such as choice questions and disjunctive or tag/tail questions. These include asking for items among a pre-defined set, as well as confirmation of a speaker's supposition (e.g., He did it, didn't he?) and so on. All of these types of questions exist in Korean but we will focus predominantly on Yes/No and Question-word questions. Other ones, such as tag questions, typically involve a piece of morphology to express this sentiment.

Yes/No

If we avoid looking at different speech registers for the moment, yes/no questions (and answering them) is very straightforward like we would expect. Since the word order of the sentence is the same, one indicates the question by simply raising the tone at the end of the statement to convert into an interrogative versus a declarative statement. Tones are pretty amazing in this way (in Mandarin, the iconic tones serve to change the morphology of a word!). This is very easy to see in the simple expression asking if one has eaten:

Question: 밥 먹었어?

Affirmative Response: 네, 밥 먹었어요. / 예, 밥 먹었어요.

Negative Response: 아니요. 밥 안먹었어요 / 아니요, 밥 못먹었어요

You will notice that the stress in the question is on the last syllable - in this case on the polite marker 요 but otherwise would be on 어 if it were informal (i.e., 먹었?). 

Table 3.2.1 Title Goes Here


Word Verbal Negators Example
Yes 응 (informal)
네 (regular)
예 (humble)
N/A 영화 볼래요? (do you want to see the movie?)
네, 볼래요! (yes, I want to see the movie!)
No 아니 (informal)
아니요 (regular)
안 - "not"
못 - "cannot"
영화 안봤어요. (didn't see the movie)
영화 못봤어요 (couldn't see the movie)

What you will have noticed, however, is that there are actually more than one word to express affirmation or negation. While the affirmative words both mean "yes" and are differentiated by one being a regular and the other being humble speech register, the verbal negators differ in meaning. 안 is the verbal negator which means "not" as in not having done something whereas a 못 means being unable to do something - that is - something prevented you from doing it whereas 안 is within your power to do or not. However, some actions in Korean are predefined as always being 안 or 못 such as when being sick: 아파서 학교 못갔어요. Since you were sick, you were unable to go to school (i.e., being sick prevents you from going to school). While it is grammatically correct to use 안, it would be semantically incorrect to use it since the language simply isn't used this way. However, other things are subject to the perception or intended meaning of the speaker.

In other Korean dialects, there is actually verbal morphology that corresponds with Yes/No and Question-word questions (the dialect from Busan is iconic of this) but you don't really need to know much about this other than the fact that there is some variation among the different regions. 

3.3 Interrogatives: Question Words

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Question Words

Question-words are generally straight forward. They correspond with a specific word-class; that is, "what" refers to a noun or noun phrase in many cases (which can act as a subject, direct object, etc.) whereas "who" refers to the same but specifically a person. "How" refers to a degree of a condition or the manner in which in action is done, and so on. In table 3.2.2, you will see a list of question words along with their English counterparts and related word classes.

In addition to the order of words not changing when asking questions, these words can even be used in declarative statements as relative pronouns. For example, consider the following examples:

어디 갔어? (where did you go/did you go somewhere)

어디 갔어. (I went somewhere).

Thus, knowing that question words (not all but many) can be used not only in questions, but as generic pronouns (i.e., something, somewhere, someone some kind of, etc.) is very effective for even basic communication.

You will also see in some question words that there can be some overlap in meaning/usage (i.e., 어느/무슨), though there are subtle differences between them. The best way to develop a feel for the circumstances in which each word is used more naturally is to simply listen/read Korean, as well as interact with other Korean speakers. You will also notice that the translations in English generally use the present tense, progressive aspect whereas the actual Korean phrases largely use the present tense, simple (i.e., none) aspect. Just keep in mind that most items are never translated 1:1 but rather are interpreted using the best equivalent expression in terms of meaning or usage. In section 3.4., we will take a look at the basic syntax of phrases within the larger word order as a whole. For example, where do temporal adverbs go? How about manner adverbs? Prepositional phrases before or after verbal phrases?

Table 3.3.1 Question Words


English
Equivalent
Word
Class(es)
Example Meaning
*무엇 / 뭐
what subject, direct/indirect objects 뭐 해? what are you doing?
언제
when temporal adverbs, time prepositions 언제 가? when are you going?
어디/*어디서 where
where at
locative prepostions 어디 가?
어디서 해?
where are you going?
where are you doing it?
누구 who subject, direct/indirect objects 누구예요? who are you/is it?
why phrases/subordinate clauses 왜 가? why are you going?
어느 which
  • asking about a choice among a number of items
  • asking about quantity or degree. (어느 +정도, 만큼)
noun/determiner phrases
(subject, direct/indirect objects)
어느 학교 가? which school do you go to?
어떤 what kind of
[adjective]
  • asking about an item among a determined number of choices
  • asking about particular features/characteristics
noun/determiner phrases
(subject, direct/indirect objects)
어떤 사람이에요? what kind of person are they?
무슨 which noun/determiner phrases
(subject, direct/indirect objects)
무슨 말이에요? what does that mean?
어떻게 how
[manner adverb]
adverbial phrases 어떻게 가? how do you go there?
얼마나 how long (how much time)
[adverb]
adverbial phrases 얼마나 걸려요? how long does it take?
얼마 how much
(money/cost)
numerical quantifier phrases
(subjects/objects)
얼마예요? how much is it?
how many
(with a counting unit)
numerical quantifier phrases
(subjects/objects)
몇 분이에요? how many people are there?

*The question word 무엇 (what) is often shortened to 뭐 in speech and writing, though this is technically the base form. 어디서 similarly is a contracted form of 어디에서 as it includes a prepositional marker that indicates where an action takes/took place.

Question Morphology:
Honorific/Humble Speech Registers

In Korean, we can also know very overtly that a statement is a question due to specific morphology attached at the end of the verb root when verbs are used in both humble and high-honorific speech registers. These are shown in Table 3.3.2.

You will start noticing a pattern with the appearance of certain words and verb endings (as well as word choice) given the speech register. For example, 저는 한국사람입니다; there is a concordance between the humble subject pronoun as well as the humble form of the verb 이다. 

Table 3.3.2 Title Goes Here


Morphology Example Meaning
Humble
Register
-ㅂ니까
습니까
무슨 말입니까? What does this mean?
What are you talking about?
High Honorific
Register
-십니까 몇 분 이십니까? How many people?

Please keep in mind that the pattern of usages is likely outside of many real-life conversations as these are typically used only in very formal situations that codify status of the speakers very overtly. It's far more common to use the -세요 register as a more normal honorific register. Nevertheless, the pattern would be someone asking a question in the high honorific register with the person then responding in the humble register (see Table 3.3.2). It is possible, though, to make questions using the humble speech register though you have to keep in mind these are often not directly asking what others are doing, or can be indicative of very specific relationship dynamics such as a high status person talking to someone who is older (who has higher social status due to age). The general point here is that there are morphological ways in very formal/honorific Korean for questions, just like how there are regional differences (as we mentioned earlier about the dialect iconic of Busan) that have morphology that indicates yes/no questions as well as question-word ones. We'll cover the different speech registers and related morphology in Lesson 4: Semantics and Pragmatics. For now, continue on to Section 3.4 to get an overview of the more common word patterns within phrase.

3.4 Phrase Patterns

As noted in section 3.1., the general syntax of Korean is S-O-V although realistically speaking, these should thought of as phrases rather than simple components. Most sentences not to be this simple. Moreover, many sentences may not even actually include subjects or objects. Thus we can see a "variety" of phrase patterns that implicitly assume what the subject or predicate phrases are without ever being stated.

Verbal Phrases

The most simple sentence can be as short as a single word: a verb. Of course, these sentences assume a lot of unstated information such as:

추워!

간다!

힘들어!

Subject+ Verbal Phrases

More often than stating simple actions or states, you will likely include or need to specify the subject to what is being referred to is more clear.

오늘은 추워!

엄마가 가신다

우리 형은 힘들어요. 

Subject+ Predicate + Verbal Phrases

Of course, many things you need to say (and will hear) are not just simple statements. Thus, you simply add more information in the predicate:

오늘 우리 집이 추워요.

오늘은 엄마가 한국에 가신다.

우리 형은 시험을 봐서 힘들어요

You will start noticing that you can start expanding the complexity of the predicate by adding direct object, indirect object, prepositional, and adverbial phrases to provide more detail. The real point to notice is the common places that things like prepositional phrases go, as well ad adverbs.


Adverbial Phrases

Sentences, of course, are not always simple. We do need to add additional, relevant information such as when or where something takes place. While there is flexibility in where these can be place in a sentence due to the nature of case markers, actual language use is more limited. We'll start by looking at adverbs.

Adverbs come in many different flavors. There are adverbs that express time, the manner of an action, the degree of an action or characteristic, and so on. Because there are different kinds of adverbs, there are also different syntactic positions that they occur in. Generally speaking, time adverbs often go at the beginning of a sentence to ground the entire phrase in when it occurred. For example, 오늘 학교에 가요. However, you can also specify the manner of the action in a sentence in addition to when it occurs. Manner adverbs typically come directly before a verb- for example, 오늘 학교에 늦게 가요. Then, of course, there are degree-raters that function like adverbs in Korean (since there are only verbs) that come in front of descriptive verbs- 오늘 학교에 너무 눚게 가요.

Table 3.4.1 Types of Adverbs


Adverb Examples
Temporal 오늘, 어제, 내일, 지금, etc.
Manner 일찍, 늦게, 빨리, 천천히, 같이, etc.
Degree 너무, 많이, 아주, 매우, etc.
Frequency 자주, 항상, 절때, 가끔, etc.
Place 여기, 거기, 저기, etc.

Of course, there are multiple places adverbs can be placed that differ (such as manner adverbs) and depend a bit on the desired emphasis in relation to the rest of the sentence, or simply if information needs to be added for clarification after something has already been said. The key takeaway is that there are multiple types of adverbs, and as a consequence, there are often certain syntactic positions they go in. Moreover, you can also include multiple of the same types of adverbs (such as 오늘 오후에 or 같이 늦게 갈까? or even 오늘 오후에 같이 늦게 갈까?). Further, you can turn descriptive verbs into adverbs that then go in front of action verbs. You are likely very familiar with one already from the common and famous valuations 안녕히 가세오 or 안녕히 계세요. The 안녕히 is the adverbial form of the descriptive verb 안녕하다. Some words have their own unique adverbial form (e.g., 빨리), whereas as many are made by using the suffix 게 (as in 안전하게). 하다 has two adjectival forms that sometimes can be used interchangeably; 히 and 하게 such as 조용히 or 조용하게.


Postpositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases, or more accurately, postpositional phrases in Korean involve a morphological marker that affixes to a word. Like adverbs, pre or postposition markers come in a variety of flavors and serve different purposes. Often these words are taught as indicating location, but this is a bit of tunnel vision: these kinds of markers serve numerous roles that indicate characteristics of the relationships between words, which also includes location. They are not limited to location, however.

While many of these markers indicate certain grammatical aspects such as case (e.g., subject, direct object, etc.), there are other relationships that they express such as who is benefitting from an action as well as the goal of doing a particular action. Thus, there is more to these kinds of words than just a grammatical function such as an object or subject. These are outlined briefly in Table 3.4.2.

In terms of syntax, postposition phrases generally are placed in the predicate- the space before verbal phrases (which is commonly referred as the "object" in SOV word order -a gross over simplification. These phrases also generally come before direct objects as shown in the following examples which are built from simple to complex:

오늘 (집에) 가요.

오늘 [12시에] (집에) 가요

오늘 [12시에] (한국 집에) 가요.

오늘 [12시에] {한국에 있는} (집에) 가요.

Table 3.4.2 Types of Postpositions

Theta Role Preposition Examples
Beneficiary 에게, 한테, 위에etc.
Instrument 랑, 합께, 으로/로. etc.
Goal 에게, 한테, 을/를, etc
Source 에서, 에게서, 한테서, etc.
Locative 안, 밑, 아래, 위, 옆, 앞, etc.
Temporal 에, 부터, 까지, etc.

The postpositional phrases closest to the verb are the most closely related/essential to the verb, whereas as the ones that are farther away are less important/less related. Since the verb 가다 is used here, saying where you are going is slightly more relevant than when you are going. You will also see the use of a relative clause (a phrase that describes a noun versus a simple adjective) marked in { } brackets. It is possible to place the time phrase [12시에] or even the goal/locative phrase (집에) after the verb - however the placement after the verb creates an emphasis or focus by using a more non-standard  (though not uncommon) word order that actually resembles SVO order. In your own practice and throughout the Survival Korean courses, this will be touched in more detail with in specific lessons; the key take away is that there is not only a generic macro structure, but more specific meso level structure and micro level hierarchy. Language is, after all, an amazing cognitive process and the underlying structures that make it useful and effective are incredibly intricate. These syntactic "rules" and patterns are often not so obvious or intuitive, but it is the goal of Lesson 3 to prime for better understanding what you see and hear in Korean, and equally important, why it manifests that way (pattern variation notwithstanding).

With that said, congratulations on reaching the end of Lesson 3: Syntax. We began our dive into Grammar basics looking at some of the more structural components of language and how they appear in Korean in particular (this is Survival Korean after all!), but next we will look at Semantics and Pragmatics, meaning of words and particularly so in any given context. Before moving on, of course, evaluate your comprehension of the Lesson with the Knowledge Check and ask any questions that you have in the Lesson QnA forum! 

Last modified: Tuesday, 2 August 2022, 3:00 PM