Ref. For more explanations about basic concepts of the subject markers (subject particles) and the topic markers (topic particles), visit : [Basic] Topic Marker 은/는 vs. Subject Marker 이/가
Korean markers, also called Korean particles, define the grammatical functions and relationships between nouns by attaching to the end of them. Since this language element is completely new for many Korean learners, the concept of markers may seem a little difficult to understand. But don’t worry—I’ll explain it clearly with plenty of example sentences. This time, we’ll go over the most basic markers you’re most likely to come across : Subject markers 이[i]/가[ga] and Topic markers 은[eun]/는[neun].
Before we begin, let me describe one more important aspect about Korean markers (Korean particles). As you might have noticed already, some markers have dual forms. And there’s a very sensible reason for it.
Do you see the pattern? 이/은 are attached to nouns ending in a consonant, as they start with a vowel. In contrast, 가/는 are located after nouns ending in a vowel, because they begin with a consonant. Keep in mind this fundamental rule all the time when you’re studying Korean. Pairing consonants and vowels makes for smoother and easier pronunciation.
Okay, now we’re ready to go! Let’s start with the subject markers (subject particles) 이/가!
■ Subject Markers 이 [i] / 가 [ga]
Nc (Noun ending in a consonant) + 이
|Subject of a verb|
Nv (Noun ending in a vowel) + 가
Something mentioned first in a discourse
The subject markers indicate the subject of a verb—what is doing an action, or what is being described. Pretty simple, right? Bear in mind that 이 is used when the subject noun ends in a consonant, whereas 가 is used when the subject noun ends with a vowel.
① 커피가 비싸요.
The coffee is expensive.
② 제 남동생이 TV를 보고 있어요.
[je namdongseng-i tibireul bogo isseoyo]
My younger brother is watching TV.
③ 이름이 뭐예요?
What’s your name?
So far, so good. You’re familiar with subjects from English. Now, however, we come to the topic markers without a direct correspondent in English. What’s the difference between subject markers and topic markers? Rest assured, you’re not alone in asking this question. Most Korean learners have a tough time distinguishing them. Let’s break down the characteristics of topic markers.
■ Topic Markers 은 [eun] / 는 [neun]
Nc (noun ending in a consonant) + 은
|Topic of a sentence|
Nv (noun ending in a vowel) + 는
As for A, with regard to A, when it comes to A
Comparison / Contrast
Universal Truths / Facts
The topic marker (topic particle) also has two forms: 은 when the noun ends with a consonant, and 는 when it ends in a vowel.
제 취미는 운동이에요.
[je chwimineun undong-ieyo]
literal meaning : As for my hobby, it is workout.
translation : My hobby is workout.
This sentence can be directly translated: “as for my hobby, it is workout.” Definitely awkward in English, but you basically understand the meaning, right? In order to figure this out, think of the topic marker as meaning ‘as for A,’ ‘with regard to A,’ or ‘when it comes to A.’
Basically, the topic marker expresses distinction—you’re specifying ‘A,’ as opposed to something else.
① 빵은 싸요.
literal meaning : As for the bread, it is cheap.
translation : The bread is cheap.
② 제 여동생은 책을 읽고 있어요.
[je yeodongseng-eun chegeul ilgo isseoyo]
literal meaning : As for my younger sister, she is reading a book.
translation : My younger sister is reading a book.
③ 제 이름은 미리예요.
[je ireumeun miriyeyo]
literal meaning : As for my name, it is Miri.
translation : My name is Miri.
With this usage, the topic markers can be used to emphasize contrast/comparison in a sentence where two different nouns are being listed.
엄마는 미국 사람이고, 아빠는 한국 사람이에요.
[eommaneun miguksaramigo, appaneun hanguk saramieyo]
literal meaning : As for my mother, she is American and as for my father, he is Korean.
translation : My mother is American, and my father is Korean.
Here, the marker attaches to both 어머니 [eomeoni] (mother) and 아버지 [abeoji] (father) as their two nouns are being contrasted.
■ Subject Markers for New Information / Topic Markers for Old Information
When choosing whether to mark the noun with the subject marker or the topic marker, a deciding factor is often whether the person or object or whatever has already been mentioned in the discourse. The first time a new person or object shows up in the conversation, it is frequently marked with 이/가 to show that it constitutes new information; when it is mentioned again as pre-established topic, it is marked with 은/는. In other words, 이/가 are attached to the new information and 은/는 are attached to the old/given information.
① Q. 나이가 어떻게 되세요?
[naiga eotteoke dwaseyo]
How old are you?
A. 제 나이는 26살이에요.
[je naineun seumul-yeoseotsa-lieyo]
I’m 26 years old.
② 제 친구가 왔어요. 제 친구는 노트북을 가져왔어요.
[je chinguga wasseyo, je chinguneun noteubugeul gajeowasseyo]
My friend has come. She has brought a laptop.
■ Topic Markers for Universal Truths / Facts
As an extension of the ‘Old vs. New information’ rule, one further rule seems to govern the use of the topic markers 은/는. 은/는 tend to appear with universally acknowledged truths and facts. That’s because in a certain perspective they’re all considered old information.
① 한글은 한국어의 알파벳이에요.
[hangeu-leun hangugeoui alpabeshieyo]
Hangeul is the Korean alphabet.
② 한국의 수도는 서울이에요.
[hangugui sudoneun seou-lieyo]
The capital of Korea is Seoul.
■ Topic Marker + Subject Marker
Let’s mix up the sentences we’ve just learned. You’ll be able to fully understand the sentences below.
① 커피가 비싸요. 빵은 싸요.
[keopiga bissayo. ppang-eun ssayo]
The coffee is expensive. As for the bread, it is cheap.
② 남동생이 TV를 보고 있어요. 여동생은 책을 읽고 있어요.
[namdongseng-i tibi-leul bogo isseoyo. yeodongseng-eun chegeul ilgo isseoyo]
My younger brother is watching TV. As for my younger sister, she is reading a book.
③ 이름이 뭐예요? 제 이름은 미리예요.
[ireumi mwoyeyo? je ireumeun miriyeyo]
What’s your name? As for my name, it is Miri.
Also, it’s very common to use both the topic marker and subject marker in the same sentence. Let’s take a look at a few examples. Most of the time, the topic marker comes first after the topic of the sentence, followed by the subject marker marking the subject of the verb.
① 어제는 제 학생들이 시험을 쳤어요.
[eojeneun je haksengdeu-li siheomeul chyeosseoyo]
As for yesterday, my students took a test.
② 도넛은 제 친구가 샀어요.
[doneoseun je chinguga sasseyo]
As for the donuts, my friend bought them.
③ 케이크는 제가 만들었어요.
[keikeuneun jega mandeu-leosseoyo]
As for the cake, I made it.
- Yeon J, Brown L. Korean : A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge; 2013.
- Choo M, Kwak H. Using Korean : A Guide To Contemporary Usage. Cambridge University Press; 2008.
- Vincent M, Yeon J. Teach Yourself Korean. Chicago, IL: McGraw-Hill; 2003.