Forming the present tense in Korean is a simple two-step process, but how the word is conjugated depends on the word stem itself and the formality of the sentence. Although it is simple, this process is one of the most important fundamentals when forming Korean sentences. Additionally, the function of the present tense in Korean goes beyond that of English. In this post, we will first discuss the conjugation process and then talk about the unique features of the present tense in Korean. Let’s dive right in and see how to conjugate into the present tense in Korean!
Table of Contents
What is the dictionary form?
Dictionary form is exactly what it sounds like — it’s the form of a verb or adjective that one may find in the dictionary (yes, adjectives conjugate like verbs in Korean!). 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. The Korean language’s version of “to” or “to be” is to use 다 at the end of a verb or adjective stem. Here are some examples:
- 먹다 to eat
- 슬프다 to be sad
- 이다 to be
- 숙제하다 to do homework
Let’s take a look at how to go from the dictionary form to the present tense of a verb or adjective.
How to conjugate into present tense?
As mentioned previously, conjugating verbs and adjectives into present tense is a simple two-step process:
- Drop the 다 ending in the dictionary form to make what’s called the “stem”:
- 좋다 (to be good) 좋다 좋
⤷dictionary form ⤷ending ⤷stem
- 가다 (to go) 가다 가
⤷dictionary form ⤷ending ⤷stem
2. Add the ending appropriate to the level of formality. Except for the high form which uses the deferential ending form -ㅂ/습니다, follow the rules below.
Here is a quick reminder about the level of formality. 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.
Let’s see how this applies to some examples:
Exceptions to the conjugation rule
There are several exceptions to the conjugation rules that you need to pay attention to.
- If the verb or adjective ends in a vowel, the -아/어(요) will combine with the previous syllable.
2. ㅂ : 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
3. ㄷ : 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
4. 르 : If a word stem ends with 르, drop ㅡ of 르, add additional ㄹ, and follow the conjugation rules.
- 빠르다 (to be fast) 빨ㄹ + 아요 = 빨라요
- 기르다 (to grow) 길ㄹ + 어요 = 길러요
5. ㅡ : If a word stem ends with ㅡ, drop ㅡ. Then, refer to the vowel that precedes ㅡ to determine whether 아 or 어 is used in the ending. In the case of single-syllable stems where ㅡ is the only vowel, add 어.
- 바쁘다 (to be busy) 바ㅃ + 아요 = 바빠요 (바 has the ㅏ vowel)
- 예쁘다 (to be pretty) 예ㅃ + 어요 = 예뻐요 (예 has the ㅖ vowel)
- 크다 (to be big) ㅋ + 어요 = 커요 (single-syllable stem)
6. ㅅ : If the word stem ends with ㅅ, drop ㅅ and conjugate:
- 잇다 (to connect) 이 + 어요 = 이어요
- 낫다 (to get better) 나 + 아요 = 나아요
Points to consider
- To form a question, simply use the same present tense ending with a rising intonation at the end.
마이클이 요즘 바빠요 → 마이클이 요즘 바빠요?↗
Michael is busy these days. → Is Michael busy these days?
- Forming the negative in the present tense is more complicated, because it often requires us to add a word or part of a word.
When to use the present tense form in Korean?
The Korean present tense is used in a similar fashion as the English present tense is. However, there are some notable differences as well.
- Just like the English present tense, the Korean present tense is used to describe general truths, repeated actions, habits, current emotions, and current state.
- 지구는 둥글어요. The earth is round.
- 저는 아침마다 수영해요. I swim every morning.
- 사랑해요, 영미 씨. I love you, Youngmi.
- 지금 김치가 없습니다. I don’t have kimchi now.
- 영미는 선생님이에요. Youngmi is a teacher.
2. One difference is that the Korean present tense can be used to indicate an action in progress, just like the present progressive tense does. For such use, time indicating words such as 지금 (now), 현재 (currently), and 요즘 (these days) are often used along with the form.
- 지금 뭐 해요? What are you doing right now?
- 저는 이번 학기에 한국어를 공부해요. I am studying Korean this semester.
- 리사는 현재 한국을 여행해요. Lisa is currently traveling Korea.
Because the Korean present tense form can either describe a current state or an action in progress, you need to rely on the context to translate certain sentences. Let’s look at the following sentence.
저는 아침으로 베이글을 먹어요.
This sentence can be translated to 1) I eat bagel for breakfast (indicates a habit) or 2) I am eating bagel for breakfast (describes current action). The context will let you know which translation would be correct.
If you want to make it clear that you are talking about an action in progress, Koreans use the present progressive form -고 있다. And the sentence will be:
저는 아침으로 베이글을 먹고 있어요.
If you want to emphasize that it is your ritual to eat a bagel for breakfast, you could add an adverbs 매일 (every day), 주로 (mainly), or 보통 (usually) to describe the frequency.
저는 매일 (주로 / 보통) 아침으로 베이글을 먹어요.
3. The other difference is that the Korean present tense can be used to indicate a near future event that will definitely occur. There is no hint of uncertainty. For such use, words that indicate future time such as 내일 (tomorrow), 이따가 (later), 다음 (next) and 올해 (this year) are used with the expression.
- 마이클은 내일 한국에 가요. Michael will go to Korea tomorrow.
- 올해 대학교에 갑니다. I am going to college this year.
- 우리 이따가 통화해요. Let’s talk on the phone later.
- 다음 주에 어머니가 미국에 오세요. My mother is coming to the U.S. next week.
- To conjugate the base form to present tense, drop the 다 to find the word stem and add the appropriate ending for the listener and/or subject.
- Low form (informal) 아/어
- Middle form (polite) 아/어요
- High form (deferential) 습/ㅂ니다
- Use 해(요) or 합니다 for words ending with 하다.
- There are several irregular conjugation rules to pay attention to.
- Use the present tense form to describe general truth, repeated actions, habits, emotions, and current state.
- The Korean present tense can be used to describe an action in progress.
- Used with terms expressing future time, the present tense in Korean can be used to indicate a future event that will definitely happen without uncertainty.
Now, let’s practice with some exercises on the present tense in Korean!