I got the idea to write this post because some friends in a Korean-learning community I’m involved in were asking about it. 어느, 어떤, and 무슨 all seem very similar—perhaps even interchangeable—when you just look at how they are translated to English (that being, I have seen all three of them translated as “which” before). However, they have some important differences in when and how they’re used. Let’s take a look!
어느 has two main usages. The first is used only in questions to mean “which (one)” when choosing from a limited set. For these examples, we need a little bit of context to understand how it works:
- (while trying to choose between two shirts of the same style but different colors, to your friend) 어느 색깔이 더 좋아 (Which color is better)?
- (with a group of friends, looking at a list of current movie listings) 어느 영화가 가장 재미있는 것 같아? (Which movie seems the most fun?)
The other main usage of 어느 is to indicate some vague referent, be that a person, object, time, place, etc. This usage is often used to set the scene for stories or reference someone in a manner that indicates that the specific details of that thing aren’t the focus or aren’t really important.
- 어느 해맑은 날에… (On some sunny day…)
- 어느 예능 프로그램을 보고 있었는데 정말 잘 생긴 게스트가 나왔어요. (I was watching some variety program, and there was a really good-looking guest.)
- 지금 열심히 일하면 어느 날 부자가 되겠지? (If I work hard now, I’ll be rich some day, right?)
One more usage of 어느 that you will see from time to time is 어느 indicating an uncertain quantity or extent of something.
- 다은 씨는 어느 정도 요리를 할 수 있어요. (Daeun can cook to some extent.)
- 강현 씨는 돈을 어느 정도 벌고 외국으로 떠나고 싶대요. (Kanghyeon says he wants to earn some amount of money and go away to a foreign country.)
어떤 means the same thing as “어떠한” and as such, is used to indicate particular features or characteristics of something. It can be more or less translated as “what kind of.” When asking a question using 어떤, the range of possible answers is limited, but usually not as limited as with 어느.
- 저 남자는 어떤 사람인지 궁금하네요. (I wonder what kind of person that man is.)
- 어떤 책을 좋아해요? (What kind of books do you like?)
- 어떤 집을 사고 싶어요? (Which kind of house do you want to buy?)
어떤 can also be used for indicating something that you know a little about, but nothing too specific. For example, suppose you’re telling someone about how you saw someone collapse in the metro! Scary, right? You didn’t know what to do at that moment, but then…
- 어떤 멋진 남자는 긴급 의료원들이 도착했을 때까지 심폐소생술을 해서 결국에 다 괜찮았어요. (Some cool man did CPR until the paramedics arrived and everything was okay in the end.)
You don’t really know much about this life-saving person, but you know that he was a man, and he seemed pretty cool with his CPR skills! Let’s look at one more example:
- 그는 정말 *길치라서 어떤 어두운 골목길을 1시간이나 헤맸어요 . (He’s really bad at directions, so he wandered some dark alley for an hour or so.)
*NOTE- 길치 is a term indicating someone who is bad at directions. In a similar vein, 음치 is someone tone-deaf.
Finally, 무슨 is used when you want to ask or talk about a matter, thing, etc. that you are not really certain about. Unlike 어느 and 어떤, the number of possible answers to a question that is asked with 무슨 is practically unlimited. It can be roughly translated as “what,” though as you will see from the examples, it really depends on the context.
- 무슨 색깔을 좋아해요? (What color do you like?)
- 무슨 생각을 해? (What are you thinking about?)
무슨 can also be used when you want to talk generally about some things or situations.
- 그는 무슨 잘못을 했는지 갑자기 반친구한테 따돌림을 당했어요. (Perhaps because he did something wrong, he was suddenly ostracized by his classmates.)
- 무슨 일이든 저에게 푸념할 수 있어요. (No matter what issue it is, you can vent to me.)
Do you understand the differences between 어느, 어떤, and 무슨 a bit better now? Just keep practicing using them and listening to native input to develop your intuition for when to use each one.