If you’re confused between the Korean markers 은/는 and 이/가 and struggling to figure out which one to use in any given sentence, you’re not alone. This is one of the most difficult concepts to master (and to explain) in beginning Korean.
In this article, I'll explain them to you using three simple rules and provide plenty of examples.
은/는 is often referred to as the topic marker, and 이/가 the subject marker. However, in my experience, this differentiation only adds to the confusion for many learners.
The topic and the subject are not always easily determined in a sentence. A sentence can have both a topic and a subject; but in many cases, the topic can also be the subject and vise versa.
I’ve found that students tend to get even more confused by using the terms topic marker and subject marker.
Rather than learning the terminology, I prefer to focus on the function of the particles and explain the differences. Please feel free to use the terms topic marker and subject marker if doing so helps your learning.
Ultimately, understanding what each particle does is more important than trying to correctly label the particles.
Before we go on, let me point out that 은 and 는 are the same particle, except that 은 follows a consonant and 는 follows a vowel. Similarly, 이 and 가 are the same particle. 이 follows a consonant and 가 follows a vowel.
Rule #1: When deciding between Korean particles 은/는 vs. 이/가, ask yourself one question:
Where in the sentence is the key message you want to convey -
the subject or the predicate?
Subject + Predicate
Subject + Predicate
If the subject has the key message,
If the predicate has the key message,
Let’s look at some examples by comparing the differences in meaning between 은/는 and 이/가 in otherwise identical sentences.
이 사람은 제이쓴 이에요. - This person is Jason.
이 사람이 제이쓴 이에요. - This person is Jason (this person is the one who’s Jason).
제이쓴은 의사예요. - Jason is a doctor.
제이쓴이 의사예요. - Jason is the doctor.
린다는 선생님이에요. - Linda is a teacher.
린다가 선생님이에요. - Linda is the teacher
Notice that in English, using the words “a” or “the” changes the meaning of the message. In Korean sentences, the particles serve the same purpose.
Let’s look at some more examples. In order to know what part of the sentence is more important, think about what the question is that these statements are answering. Then determine if the answer is in the subject or the predicate of the sentence.
(Question: Who is the President of the U.S.?)
미국 대통령은 도널드 트럼프이에요. - The president of the U.S. is Donald Trump.
도널드 트럼프가 미국 대통령이에요. - Donald Trump is the president of the U.S.
In answering the question “Who is the President of the U.S.?”
(Question: Who is Donald Trump?)도널드 트럼프는 미국 대통령이에요. - Donald Trump is the president of the U.S.
In answering the question “Who is Donald Trump?”
Below are more examples:
우리 강아지가 제 숙제를 먹었어요. - Our puppy ate my homework. (This statement would be to explain where the homework is, so “our puppy” is the more important information.)
우리 강아지는 장난감을 좋아해요. - Our puppy likes toys. (This statement gives information about the puppy, so the predicate “likes toys” is more important.)
Still confused? Here’s an even simpler way to think about 은/는 vs. 이/가:
Rule #2: Use the Korean particle 은/는 to compare or contrast with another statement
Although the above Rule #1 applies in general, there are exceptions. One exception would be to compare and/or contrast the statement(s).
Here are some examples:
Q: Do you know where I can buy some groceries?
A: 슈퍼가 여기에서 멀어요. - The supermarket is far from here.시장은 가까워요. - The outdoor market is close by.
Example 1 is in response to someone needing to buy some groceries. The two statements indicate that the supermarket is far away but the outdoor market is close by.
The subject of the second sentence (시장) has the particle 은, because the distance to the outdoor market is compared with the first sentence.
If the question was “Where is the supermarket?”, then the first sentence would have been
“슈퍼는 여기에서 멀어요,” in line with Rule #1 (subject-predicate) explained above.
Q: What subjects are you struggling with?
A: 영어가 어려워요. - English is difficult.수학은 쉬워요. - Math is easy.
The above two statements compare English and math in response to the question. The subject of the second sentence (수학) has the particle 은, because the person is saying math is easy in comparison to English.
Again, if the question was “How are you doing in English?”, then the first sentence would have been “영어는 어려워요.”
그 사람의 옷차림이 재미있어요. - That person’s clothing style is fun.
모자는 빨간색이에요. - The hat is red
코트는 보라색이에요. - The coat is purple.그리고 바지는 노란색이에요. - And the pants are yellow.
After the initial statement, the next three sentences compare the different colors of the different pieces of clothing the person is wearing. 은/는 is used in each of those sentences because they are in contrast with each other.
Rule #3: When a Korean sentence contains both topic and subject - use 은/는 with the topic and 이/가 with the subject
Many Korean sentences contain two nouns in the subject, with the first noun being the topic of the sentence. Examples of such sentences are:
저는 머리가 아파요. - As for me, my head hurts.
올해는 태풍이 너무 많았어요. - As for this year, there were too many hurricanes.
오늘은 날씨가 좋아요. - As for today, the weather is nice.
This is where the terms “topic marker” and “subject marker” make sense. In each of the above sentences, the first part is the topic, so 은/는 follows the topic. The second part in each sentence is the actual subject noun and is followed by 이/가.
Exception to Rule #3:
There is an exception to the above rule, wherein the sentence implies that the stated information contrasts with all other possible options. The implied information is shown in parentheses.
제가 피부는 안좋아요.
Meaning: As for me, my complexion is bad (but everything else about me is good).
그 여자가 성격은 좋아요.
Meaning: As for that woman, she has a good personality (but no other good qualities).
이 식당이 고기종류는 맛이 있어요.
Meaning: As for this restaurant, the meat dishes are good (but not other dishes).
Because the subject of each statement is using 은/는 (for contrast), the topic has to use 이/가. In most cases, if the 은/는 follows the topic, 이/가 follows the subject; and if 이/가 follows the topic, 은/는 follows the subject.
Let’s look at the same examples with the particles switched. The below sentences are similar to the examples first given for Rule #3. You should notice that when written this way, there are no implied messages.
저는 피부가 안좋아요.
As for me, my complexion is bad.
그 여자는 성격이 좋아요.
As for that woman, she has a good personality.
이 식당은 고기종류가 맛이 있어요.
As for this restaurant, the meat dishes are good.
These sentences simply contain the topic and one piece of information about the topic. There is no implied information.
*Note: There are some instances when 이/가 is used for both the topic and the subject, but you will almost never see 은/는 used back to back for the topic and the subject.
I hope you now have a better understanding of the Korean particles 은/는 vs. 이/가. Just remember that almost everyone struggles with this. This article contains a lot of information that may be hard to digest all at once.
As always, just try to master one small thing at a time. You will eventually get it!!
- REVIEW AND REPEAT DAILY, AND YOU WILL SEE PROGRESS… 화이팅!!**