Personal pronouns are another element of the Korean language that beginner learners might find confusing. First of all, they usually come in at least two versions: more polite and less polite. So just like speech levels, each one is appropriate for specific circumstances. However, the real tricky part is that Koreans don’t use pronouns as often as English speakers do. In fact, there are plenty of sentences in Korean that don’t have any at all and function just fine. So for Korean beginners, it’s quite common to wonder which pronouns to use and when to use them.
(Please keep in mind that the posts in this column are a basic introduction to Korean. I’m an American studying Korean, so I don’t have the same knowledge and experience as a native Korean speaker. And while I’ve been living in South Korea for a couple of years, my level isn’t high enough for me be an expert. There are many more nuances and details to this subject, but I’m staying with what I can confidently explain.)
Using Pronouns in Korean vs. Using Pronouns in English
Personal pronouns are pretty much essential in English, especially during conversations. We need them to clearly identify whom we’re talking to and/or whom we’re talking about. If we’re telling stories or speaking with others, it’s pretty rare to have a sentence without some kind of pronoun. But in Korean, it’s completely different. Though Koreans use personal pronouns when they first start talking, they tend to leave them out from all subsequent sentences if the pronoun doesn’t change or can be easily guessed by the listener. For example, say I was talking about my day. In English, I could say, “I slept late this morning. I didn’t wake up until noon. I had lunch around 2. I feel super lazy today.” (I don’t actually talk in short sentences like this, but I’m simplifying things to make them clearer.) In Korean, I could drop “I” from every sentence after the first one.
When it comes to referring to others, Korean becomes even less direct. In spoken Korean, the personal pronouns “you,” “he,” and “she” are often implied rather than explicitly said. If you look in a dictionary or on Google Translate or something like that, you’ll see that Korean versions of these words exist. But in the two and a half years I’ve lived in Korea, I’ve rarely heard any conversations that included them. I have heard people use “you,” but mostly on variety shows very informal and casual settings. (Or if my students are arguing with each other or calling each other out, which thankfully isn’t often.) Instead of addressing each other directly, Koreans prefer calling people by their name and/or corresponding title – more on this later.
Topic Markers and Subject Markers
Before I dive into personal pronouns, I need to talk about topic and subject markers. This is yet another potentially difficult concept for beginners, since English doesn’t use sentence particles in this fashion. (Also, we often use the words “topic” and “subject” interchangeably.) I don’t really want to get into this too much, because I’d probably need a whole separate post to properly explain everything. However, some of the pronouns that I’ll cover in this post are used as topic and/or subject markers. So I’m going to do a brief overview on sentence particles, just to give you a basic idea of what they are.
Essentially, topic and subject markers are ways of labeling nouns (and pronouns) and indicating their functions in the sentence. A topic marker highlights the focus of the sentence and what it’s about, while a subject marker emphasizes which noun is the sentence’s grammatical subject. For example, let’s pretend I see an adorable baby. (This actually happens a ton where I live.) I could say, “아기는 너무 귀여워요.” In this case, using “는” shows that “아기” (baby) is the topic of the sentence. I could be referring to the baby I’m actually looking at, but I could also just be making a general statement about how babies are super cute. On the other hand, I could say, “아기가 너무 귀여워요.” If I use “가,” it marks “아기” as the grammatical subject of the sentence. And, it means I’m saying that specific baby is cute.
Of course, the confusing part is that there are times when the topic and the subject of a sentence are the same. So when that happens, which one do you use? Typically, you can stick with the topic marker (은/는) because it’s very general and can go after most things. Subject markers (이/가) are reserved for the actual grammatical subject, so their usage is slightly more limited. That being said, don’t stress too much about which marker to use if you’re a beginner. Even if you use the wrong one, it doesn’t change the overall meaning of the sentence – Koreans will still understand what you’re trying to say. Topic and subject markers just provide an extra level of clarification.
Here are a few other examples of when you can use topic and subject markers:
Again, this is really just the tip of the iceberg – I’m giving you a general idea so that the rest of this post makes sense. If you want to learn more about the difference between topic and subject markers, I suggest watching the video below. I looked a bunch of videos on YouTube, and I feel this one is the clearest and simplest explanation. And if you’re looking for something a little more detailed, you can watch this one.
How to Say “Who” in Korean
Technically, “who” isn’t a personal pronoun… but I’m making a quick note on it anyway since it fits the overall theme of the post. The Korean word for “who” is “누구.” When you’re watching a variety show or a drama, you might see a scene where someone knocks on the door. Usually, the person who’s already in the room will ask “누구세요?” Basically, they’re saying, “Who is it?” or “Who’s there?” (Notice that it’s in honorific speech to be extra polite.) You’ll also occasionally see “누가” in sentences or questions – in this case, the “가” is the subject marker that I previously mentioned.
How to Say “I” in Korean
There are four different ways to say “I” in Korean. They depend on two conditions: whether you’re being polite or casual, and whether you’re using a topic marker or subject marker.
Typically, using “저” or “제” indicates that you’re humbling yourself in comparison to others – in other words, you’re aware there are older or higher-ranking people around you. So, you will use these two whenever you’re not the oldest person in the situation and/or you want to be polite. “나” and “내” can be used in more relaxed settings, like when you’re the oldest in the group or if you’re among friends. And if you want to say “my,” you can use “제” (polite version) or “내” (casual version).
How to Say “You” in Korean
In English, it’s rare to directly address someone without using “you.” It’s a fundamental word in our language, especially when we’re having conversations with other people. In Korean, not so much. Calling someone “you” is considered really informal, so people tend not to do it. I’ve genuinely never heard Korean people use their version of “you” in real-life conversation – only in the media. So if you watch K-dramas or variety shows or listen to K-pop, you might have heard some words that mean “you” before. Let’s take a look at them and why you shouldn’t use them while speaking Korean:
- 당신 – If you look in the dictionary, this is sometimes listed as the formal version of “you.” While that is the case, “당신” is more common in written Korean because it has a more poetic connotation. You also occasionally hear it in songs, when it’s supposed to be used in a romantic sense. However, you’re better off not using it in everyday conversation. “당신” in spoken Korean can come off as confrontational, so you might unintentionally give someone the impression that you’re trying to start something with them.
- 너(는) and 네(가): In this case, “너” is the topic marker and “네” is the subject marker. (You can also say “네” if you want to say “your.”) While you can say “너” and “네”in spoken Korean, keep in mind that they are very informal and you should only do so around friends. And even then, they really aren’t used as frequently as “you” is in English. So if you want to use these, tread carefully.
- While “네” would typically be pronounced with an “eh” sound, “네가” is often pronounced with an “ee” sound (so like “knee”). You’ll definitely hear this in a lot of K-pop songs.
So if you shouldn’t use “당신” and you have to be careful with “너” and “네,” what can you use to say “you” in Korean? The answer is basically what we refer to as “third person” in English. You should call the person by their name and/or title, and then continue your question or sentence as normal. I’ll make a more in-depth post about titles next time, but for now I’m going to use a real-life example from work.
My students are supposed to talk to me in English, but they sometimes call me “선생님” – which is the Korean word and title for “teacher.” They also know that I listen to K-pop, since I often make K-pop related games for them. (K-pop games are surefire crowd-pleasers.) So every once in a while, a student will ask me if I like a certain group. For example, they could ask, “선생님 NCT 좋아해요?” If you translated this into English, it would be something like, “Does Teacher (Katherine) like NCT?” But since the student is talking with me, it’s their way of asking, “Do you like NCT?” It’s just that the “you” is implied.
How to Say “He” or “She” in Korean
The situation with “he” and “she” is pretty similar to what I just outlined with “you.” There are technically words for these two pronouns: typically “그” for “he” and “그녀” for “she.” However, they’re more commonly used in written Korean. I honestly can’t remember a time when I heard either of those two words – either in everyday conversation or in media. Typically, people will use the “third person” approach instead of actually saying “he” or “she.”
You could also say “this person” instead of “he/she” or someone’s name and title, which can be one of three different expressions depending on the situation:
- “This person” in a casual setting: “이친구” (“친구” means “friend,” so it directly translates to “this friend”)
- “This person” in a normal setting: “이사람” (“사람” means “person”)
- “This person” in a formal setting: “이분” (“분” is the honorific word for “person,” and should be used when referring to much older people or people much higher in status)
- If you want to change “this” to “that”: Take out “이” and use “그”
As always, you should pay attention to which of these you use and when you should use it. For instance, here’s a clip of when Super Junior D&E (Donghae and Eunhyuk) went on Weekly Idol last year. Eunhyuk normally hosts this show with entertainer Kwanghee, but fellow Super Junior member Leeteuk was a guest MC for this episode. Since three out of four men were from the same group, the atmosphere was very relaxed. (Super Junior also tends to be chill on variety shows since they’ve been around for 16 years.) While they were doing introductions – around 40 seconds into the video – Kwanghee said “이친구 잘하네” to Donghae. It was a compliment, but it surprised Donghae because he’s older than Kwanghee. It definitely wasn’t a huge deal or a major offense, especially since Leeteuk (the oldest) clarified they could all speak as (casual) friends. However, this is a good example of how you can never be too careful.
How to Say “We” in Korean
There are two different ways to say “we” in Korean: “우리” and “저희.” You can also use them to mean “us” or “our,” and they can be treated as either topic markers or subject markers. Typically, you use “우리” when you’re speaking casually and “저희” when you want to be more formal. But unlike other pronouns, there are some times when you can use “우리” in more formal and/or polite situations. In my experience, I’ve actually heard Korean people use “우리” more often than “저희” – even when they’re speaking in “formal polite.”
The reason for this is because Koreans sometimes use the word “our” at times when English speakers would use “my.” For example, they say “our family,” “our mom/dad/brother/sister,” “our school,” “our husband/wife,” “our team,” “our company,” etc. Essentially, Koreans use “our” to refer to anything that could be considered a unit or a group of people. And one of the other differences between “우리” and “저희” is that “우리” includes the listener, while “저희” doesn’t. If you said “our family” to an older relative using “저희,” you might be implying they’re not related to you. Or if you said “our company” to an older coworker using “저희,” you’d be implying they’re not part of your workplace. So in these cases, it’s okay to use “우리.”
If you want to learn more about when Koreans say “our” instead of “my,” you can look at the video below. And if you want to know more about the difference between “우리” and “저희,” you can watch this one.
NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here. I made the other image in the post myself, so please don’t reuse or repost it without my permission either.