Hello again! It feels like it’s been a while since I wrote a grammar post. I was trying to think of something that would be not too hard or time-consuming (grad school devours my free time!) and that would be helpful to a large number of people. I looked through my list of Korean grammar posts and realized that I hadn’t even yet done a post on the simple past tense! Let’s jump right on in.
The simple past tense in Korean functions fairly exactly the same as in English—that is, you can use it to express actions that occurred and completed at a point in the past. Some easy examples might be sentences like, “I ate lunch” or “He went to school.”
So, how do we form the simple past tense? In general, there are two main past tense markers, -았- and -었- which come after the verb root but before the sentence ending (and before sentence connectors as well, but I’ll save those for a different post). If you are not familiar with sentence endings, please read up on the three most common types, 하십시오체, 해요체, and 해체!
Deciding which past tense marker to use, -았- or -었- depends on final vowel of the root, just as we saw with 해요체 and 해체 conjugations. That is, roots with the final vowel 아 or 오 will take -았- and all others will take -었-. The same rules (and rule breakers!) that we first encountered in the 해요체 post will also apply here. I’ll give examples of all of them below but if you find yourself unable to remember them, please take a moment to refresh your memory before moving on. Also, please note that I will use 해요체 for all of my examples, but you could just as easily use 하십시오체 or 해체 in its please.
As previously mentioned, if the final vowel of the verb root is 아 or 오 use -았-, and if it’s anything else, use -었- before the sentence ending. For example:
먹다 – 다 -> 먹 + -어요 = 먹었어요
- 민호 씨는 초콜릿을 안 먹었어요. (Minho did not eat chocolate.)
좁다 – 다 -> 좁 + -아요 = 좁았어요
- 방이 정말 좁았어요. (The room was really narrow.)
- NOTE: With past tense and 해요체 together, the sentence will always end with -어요! This is because the final vowel of the root influences the closest influencible element—in this case the past tense marker—resulting in the sentence ending’s vowel choice not changing from the default -어요.
And now let’s check out some verbs and other little things that don’t follow the basic rule shown above:
Similar to what we saw in the 해요체 post, if the root ends with either 아 or 어, instead of doubling the vowel, the two vowels simply overlap since they are the same. When written out, we see it as the initial consonant of the last syllable of the root having moved to replace the ㅇ at the start of the past tense marker.
가다 – 다 -> 가 + -아요 = 갔어요 (NOT 가았어요)
- 저는 학교에 갔어요. (I went to school.)
서다 – 다 -> 서 + -어요 = 섰어요 (NOT 서었어요)
- 언니는 문 앞에 섰어요. (My older sister stood in front of the door.)
Special snowflake 하다
하다 is a bit of a special case. Similar to how 하다’s 아 turns to 애 in 해요체, the simple past tense of 하다 also changes the vowel.
오늘 뭘 했어요? (What did you do today?)
어제 만난 사람이 정말 착했어요. (The person I met yesterday was really nice.)
NOTE: In writing, you might sometimes see 하다’s past tense as “하였다.”
되다 is special too!
되다 is also a little different. Following the normal rule will give you 되었어요, which actually isn’t too uncommon in writing. However, in speaking, you will usually hear (and want to say) 됐어요.
되다 – 다 -> 되 + -어요 = 돼요
수미 씨는 의사가 됐어요. (Sumi became a doctor.)
모든 일이 잘 됐어요. (Everything turned out fine [lit: became well].)
Yet another special case is 이다. We know that in present tense 해요체 it has two different forms that it appears in: -이에요 when attached to a noun that ends with a consonant and -예요 when the noun ends with a vowel. Similarly, you must watch out for whether the noun ends with a vowel or consonant when conjugating in the simple past tense. When attached to a noun ending with a consonant 이다 becomes -이었어요. It becomes -였어요 when attached to a noun ending with a vowel.
공책이었어요. (It was a notebook.)
실수였어요. (It was a mistake.)
Even more special cases??
Other special cases occur with roots ending in the vowels 이, 우, and 오. In these cases, the final vowel merges with the 어 in -었- (or the 아 in -았- in the case of roots ending with 오) to make a compound vowel sound. Sometimes you will see them written out in non-compounded format, similar to 됐어요/되었어요, but that’s generally for writing and not done in normal speech.
마시다 – 다 -> 마시 + -었어요 = 마셨어요
- 물을 많이 마셨어요. (I drank a lot of water.)
춤을 추다 – 다 = 춤을 추 + -었어요 = 춤을 췄어요
- 미나 씨는 춤을 췄어요. (Mina danced.)
오다 – 다 -> 오 + -았어요 = 왔어요
- 비가 많이 왔어요. (It rained a lot.)
NOTE: When learning about present tense 해요체, we learned that the honorific infix -(으)시- is an exception to the above rule. However, that is not the case in simple past. In this case, -(으)시- conjugates just like the 시 in 마시다 above, as -(으)셨어요.
좋아하다 – 다 -> 좋아하 + 시 + -었어요 = 좋아하셨어요
- 우리 엄마는 꽃을 좋아하셨어요. (My mom liked flowers.)
앉다 – 다 -> 앉 + 시 + -었어요 = 앉으셨어요
- 할머니께서 의자에 앉으셨어요. (Grandma sat on the chair.)
Knowing how to use the past tense in Korean will make it a lot easier for you to hold good conversations with others. Make sure you practice until you get it down!
Happy studying, everyone~