Sunday, December 4, 2011

Topic Marker 은/는 and Subject Marker 이/가

In this book, you can see ~, ~, ~, ~ in many places, but I did not explain them properly. ~ / ~ are the topic markers, ~ / ~ are the subject markers; they are placed after nouns and pronouns to indicate the subject (grammatical subject) or the topic of a phrase. It may sound quite similar to many people, but different markers can alter the meaning of a phrase.

The topic marker and subject marker are very important grammar points in Korean. As English has no concept of the topic and subject marker, people are easily confused at these markers. Some students may be against it, but, when I am asked about these markers in the beginner or low intermediate classes, I explain that they are not so important. Although you omit the markers while speaking or make some mistakes, you can express what you want to say easily. Also, there are tons of other things to care about in the beginner or low-intermediate level other than these markers. 

Why are they so confusing?


The noun in front of the subject marker is obviously the grammatical subject. Also, the word in front of the topic marker is often used as the subject of the phrase. However, if you replace it with another marker, the intent of the phrase is changed. 
Please see the dialog below.

똘이 : 어느 나라 사람이에요?                  Where are you from?


아사미 : 일본 사람이에요.                I am Japanese.              ~ : topic marker
베키 : , 미국 사람 이에요.                   I am American.
알란 : 스코틀랜드 사람이에요.           I am Scottish.               ~ : subject marker

아사미’s answer is perfect.
베키’s answer is correct in conversational Korean. Although she didn’t use the topic marker, her answer sounds natural to Korean people.
But 알란 used the subject marker ~. People understand his answer, but many people may think it’s an awkward answer.
Although the English translations of 아사미 and 알란’s answer are the same, 알란’s answer is not proper.
What? Why?

Please see the example dialog below.


똘이 : 어느 나라 사람이에요?                  Where are you from?
아사미 : 일본 사람이에요.                I am Japanese.              ~ : topic marker




똘이 : 미국 사람이에요?                  Who is American?          누가 : 누구 +
                                                                         누구 : who       
베키 : 미국 사람이에요.                  I am American.              ~ : subject marker


If you use the topic marker, the important content is usually the descriptive part, not the  topic part.
In the first question, 똘이 asks 아사미 about her nationality. 아사미’s answer needs to be focused on where she is from, not on 아사미. That is why she needs to use the topic marker.
If you use the subject marker, the important contents are usually the subject part.
In the second question, 똘이 asks who the American is. 베키’s answer needs to be focused on herself, not on her nationality. That is why she needs to use the subject marker.

It’s confusing, right? Let’s check another dialog.



똘이 : 알란은 어디에 있어요?                  Where is Allan?
숙이 : 알란은 학교에 있어요.                  Allan is at school.     ~ : topic marker






똘이 : 학교에 있어요?                    Who is in the school?     누가 : 누구 +
                                                                                     누구 : who       
숙이 : 알란 학교에 있어요.            Allan is in the school      ~ : subject marker


In the first question, 똘이 asks about 알란. As the important point is his location, not himself, 숙이 needs to use the topic marker, ~.


In the second question, 똘이 asks who is in the school. As the important point is the person in the school, 똘이 needs to use the subject marker ~.




Another case that you can be confused about is when the subject marker and topic marker are in the same phrase. In this case, the noun with the subject marker is the grammatical subject of the phrase. The word with the topic marker can be translated to “as for ~” or “talking about ~”. You need to put the topic in front of the phrase.
Please see the example dialog below.


똘이 : 누가 저 택시를 세웠어요?              Who stopped that taxi?
숙이 : 저 택시는 내가 세웠어요.               I stopped that taxi.
                                                                       (As for that taxi, I stopped it.)




똘이 : 라면이 좋아요? 아니면 밥이 좋아요?       Is ramen ok? Or rice ok?
숙이 : 나는 라면이 좋아요.                            I like ramen.
                                                                                (As for me, ramen is good.)




똘이 : 라면은 누가 먹을 거예요?              Who is going to eat the ramen?
                                                                         (As for the ramen, who will eat it?)
숙이 : 라면은 내가 먹을 거예요.              I will eat the ramen.
                                                                       (As for the ramen, I will eat it.)


From the dialog above, you can see that direct English translation is a bit awkward. When the topic marker and subject marker are used together in the same phrase, it is usually better to translate the topic as the object of the phrase.
For example, “나는 라면이 좋아요” can be translated as “I like ramen”.  Also, "라면은 내가 먹을 거예요." can be translated as "I will eat the ramen."






Another interesting aspect of the topic marker is that, not only a noun, but also an adverb, position marker and place marker can be used for the topic. 
Please see the dialog below.


똘이 : 어제 집에 안 갔어요?  Didn't you go home yesterday?
숙이 : 네. 게임방에 있었어요.  No. I was in the PC room.
똘이 : 집에는 언제 갈 거예요?   When will you go home?  (As for home / to home ,  when will you go?)
                                           집에 : to home     ~는 : topic marker    
숙이 : 내일 저녁 까지는 갈 거예요.  I will go home by tomorrow evening. (As for by tomorrow evening, I will go home.)                                        내일 저녁 까지 : by tomorrow evening     ~는 : topic marker




Let's see another dialog.


똘이 : 한국어 잘 해요?  Do you speak Korean well?
베키 : 잘은 못 해요.   I don't speak well.   
                                     잘 : well    ~은 : topic marker
아사미 : 조금은 할 수 있어요.  I can speak a little bit.  (As for a little bit, I can speak.)
                                                     조금 : a little    ~은 : topic marker






As I mentioned in the beginning, the topic marker and the subject marker are important grammar points. However, it is not a good idea to try too hard to understand this grammar when you are still in beginner's level. 
When you feel you really need to study these markers again, it could be a sign that you are going up to a higher level, or ready to be more serious about learning Korean.


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