은/는(Topic Marker) vs 이/가(Subject Marker) – Korean Grammar vs Grammar #10

3 Speed Only

With Explanation

One of the most frequently asked question about Korean is 은/는 vs 이/가. Native speakers use them without thinking, but for foreigners, they are really confusing. I am going to cover them today.

Before we start, I am telling you the most basic one. 은 and 이 is used after the character which has 받침(consonant) like 사람은, 꽃이 and 는 and 가 is used after the character which has not like 나무는, 철수가.

1. A bit like a vs the.

Let’s say you just talked about a new apple. Then, the indefinite article ‘an’ is in front of new apple. If you talk about a little bit more about that apple, then it is called ‘the’ new apple. 이/가 and 은/는 have similar relationship. 이/가 is used when something is mentioned first and 은/는 is used to indicate what you have told.

옛날 옛적에 가난한 나무꾼이 한 명 살았어요. 그 나무꾼은 가난했지만 착하고 친절했어요. 어느 날, 그는 숲 속으로 들어갔는데, 호랑이를 만나게 되었어요. 호랑이는 나무꾼을 보자, 어흥 하고 울부짖었어요.
Once upon a time, there was a woodcutter. The woodcutter was poor but he was good and kind. One day, he went into the forest and met a tiger. When the tiger saw him, it roared at him.

Let’s see this fairy-tale like example. When the woodcutter appeared first, the marker 이 is used, however 는 is constantly used like after that 그 나무꾼은 or 그는. It is the same with the tiger. When the tiger saw him, it is translated as 호랑이는.

2. Contrast

이/가 is used for general statement and 은/는 is used for contrast.

영희가 왔다. 다들 준비해!
영희 came. Get ready, everyone!

영희는 왔는데, 철수는 안 왔어.
영희 came, but 철수 didn’t.

The first sentence is for you if you are preparing 깜짝 파티(surprise party). In this sentence, you are not interested in other people’s coming. 영희 is the main character of this party. There is no contrast, so it is 가. In the second sentence, you are comparing 철수 and 영희. That’s why 는s are used in the sentence.

사람들은 많았는데, 제가 찾던 사람은 없었어요.
There were many people, but the person I wanted to find wasn’t there.

사람들이 많았는데, 그렇게 혼잡하지는 않았어요.
There were many people, but it was not that crowded.

In the first sentence, the writer wanted to contrast the people (at the place) and the person he was looking for (let’s call him 철수), so it was 은. This implies that because there were so many people, the writer expected 철수 to be there, but he wasn’t. In the second one, he just wanted to say it was not that crowded. That’s why 이 is used there. It implies that you don’t care about the number of the people, they were just there.

However, if you just want to simply state that there were many people there without emphasizing the contrast between the large number of people and the person you are trying to find, then you can just use 이 instead of 는. It is grammatically correct both ways, but the meaning is slightly different.

It is true with the second sentence, too. If you want to emphasize the contrast with common idea(if there are many people, it is crowded), then you can also use 은 there. It implies that although you might think that the place must be crowded because of many people, but it was not.

Like this example, 은/는 and 이/가 is sometimes interchangeable but it changes the meaning slightly.

3. 이/가 -> Focus on Subject,
은/는 -> Focus on Description

As you all know, 이/가 is subject marker(주격 조사) and 은/는 is topic marker(주제격조사, topic is 주제 in Korean). As you can guess from the name, 주격조사 은/는 focuses on the subject and topic marker focuses on the topic, in other words, action or description of the subject.

Let’s see the difference with these conversations.

A: 누가 심부름하러 갔어요?
B: 철수가 갔어요.
A: Who went for the errand?
B: 철수 did.

A: 철수는 지금 뭐해요?
B: 철수는 지금 심부름하러 갔어요.
A: What is 철수 doing now?
B: 철수 went for errand.

In the first conversation, A was curious about the person who went for the errand. So, the focus of the answer is the subject. That’s why 가 is used twice like 누가 or 철수가.

In the second conversation, A was curious about what 철수 is doing now. So, the focus of the answer is the action. That’s why topic marker 는 is used like 철수는.

In Korean, something trivial or redundant is just deleted, so it becomes clear what is the focus of the question if the answers by B are shortened.

A: 누가 심부름하러 갔어요?
B: 철수요.

A: 철수는 지금 뭐해요?
B: 심부름이요.

4. With other markers or at the end of a verb conjugation

은/는: to show emphasis

Do you know the auxiliary verbs in English? It is about the verbs like can, will, should, might. They are used to add meaning to the main verb. There are auxiliary markers(보조사) in Korean and 은/는 are one of them.

As they are auxiliary markers, you can use them with other markers or at the end of a verb conjugation, too. If you listened to this podcast or read the script carefully, you could find one.

사람들이 많았는데, 그렇게 혼잡하지는 않았어요.

In 혼잡하지는, 는 is used to emphasize the meaning, it was not crowded. Therefore, you can just get rid of it, but the meaning, crowded becomes weaker.

More examples

어제 집에는 잘 들어갔어?
Did you come back home safely?

여기부터는 내가 할게.
I will do it from here.

In examples above, 집 and 여기 are emphasized.

이/가: to show subject.

Sometimes, 이/가 is used with other markers. It is just used to show the subject of the sentence.

여기까지가 내가 해 줄 수 있는 전부다.
This is the everything I can do for you.

지금부터가 진짜 시작이다.
From now is the real beginning.

5. When the sentences are combined, 이/가 must be used in the sentence in the middle.

If you make the long sentence by combining several sentences, then the sentence used in the middle(it is called 안긴 문장 in Korean) should only use 이/가.

It is really hard for you to understand what I am saying now, so let’s learn with example.

영희는 철수의 말을 조용히 듣고 있었다. 철수는 영희가 집에 빨리 들어가기를 바라는 것 같았다.
영희 was listening to what 철수 was saying quietly. It seems that 철수 wanted 영희 to go back home early.

If we follow the first rule, we should change 영희가 in the second sentence to be 영희는. Because that’s the second time 영희 is mentioned. But the second sentence is combined sentence. It is a combination of 철수는 –를 바라는 것 같았다 and 영희가 집에 빨리 들어가다. As 영희가 집에 빨리 들어가다 is in the middle of 철수는 –를 바라는 것 같다, 영희가 is used.

It was really long topic. As it is long, it might take some time to get used to it. Practice makes perfect.