Subject & Object Marking Particles

THE BIG THREE

No, I’m not talking about K-Pop agencies. I’m talking about the 3 particles that you’ll see most often in a Korean sentence. I never include these in my “Vocab & Grammar” sections because the usage of a couple of them is too complicated to get into in a single line.

First, a smidge of grammar review:

The “subject” in a sentence is the noun doing the action. Every sentence and every clause needs a subject.

The “object” in a sentence is the noun having the action done to it. Not every sentence or clause needs an object.

Examples:

MIC Drop: “Did you see my bag?”
Subject: “you”. Object: “bag”.

Inner Child: “We gon’ change.”
Subject: “we”. No object.

So here’s the high level on the 3 subject/object marking particles in Korean.


Subject: -은 or -는

How to attach it:

When attaching this particle to a word that ends in a consonant, use 은.

Example: 게임 (game) + 은 = 게임은

When attaching this particle to a word that ends in a vowel, use 는.

Example: 그림자 (shadow) + 는 = 그림자는

What it does:

This particle can also be referred to as the “topic marker”, because that’s exactly what it does. It marks a noun as the main topic of the sentence or paragraph it’s in. It can almost be translated as, “When it comes to X…” or “As for X….”

It often marks the subject in a sentence or clause, but it’s not always as simple as that. It is also often used to create a nuance of comparison.

Example:

In the chorus of Interlude: Shadow we find the line: 이제는 두려워, meaning “Now I’m scared.” 이제 means “now”. Notice it has 는 attached. This has the effect of emphasizing that at some other time I was not scared, but NOW I’m scared.


Subject: -이 or -가

How to attach it:

When attaching this particle to a word that ends in a consonant, use 이.

Example: 게임 (game) + 이 = 게임이

When attaching this particle to a word that ends in a vowel, use 가.

Example: 그림자 (shadow) + 가 = 그림자가

What it does:

This particle also marks the subject in a clause or sentence, but this one is pretty straightforward, no extra nuances or meanings woven in. The art lies in knowing when to use this particle, and when to use -은/-는. More on that later.


Object: -을 or -를

How to attach it:

When attaching this particle to a word that ends in a consonant, use 을.

Example: 게임 (game) + 을 = 게임을

When attaching this particle to a word that ends in a vowel, use 를.

Example: 그림자 (shadow) + 를 = 그림자를

What it does:

This particle marks the object of a clause or sentence. It can be used multiple times in a sentence, since sentences with multiple clauses will often have multiple objects.

Example: “I love this song, so I added it to my playlist.”

Dependent clause: “so I added it to my playlist”. Object: “playlist”

Independent clause: “I love this song”. Object: “song”

Both get 을 or 를 added.


SUBJECTS: When to use -은/-는 and when to use -이/-가

Remember to think of -은/-는 as a topic marker. Take this sentence: “Because I’m so tired, by bed looks extra comfortable.” There are two subject nouns in that sentence, “I” and “bed”. However, overall, what would you say the topic of this sentence is? My bed? No, the topic is me and how my bed looks to me. Therefore “I” is marked with the topic marker and “bed” with the plain subject marker.

나는 너무 피곤해서 침대가 더 편해 보여.”

Most native Korean speakers would actually drop the marker from “bed” and drop the word “I” entirely in that sentence. The rule is that if no subject is included in a sentence, the speaker is the subject unless context indicates otherwise. However, technically the above sentence is the correct way to say that.


Additional notes:

  1. In everyday speech, and of course in lyrics, these particles are often completely omitted.
  2. When attaching 는 or 를 to a noun that ends in a vowel, they’re often shortened to ㄴ and ㄹ respectively, and just slapped onto the existing final syllable.
    • Example: 나 means “I”. It should turn into 나는 or 나를, but is often spoken and written as 난 or 날.
  3. If there are other particles that need to get attached to the subject or object of a sentence (like -고, -도, etc.) they don’t get added on behind the subject or object marker, they replace it.