What’s the difference? — -고 있다 and -아/어 있다


This post was inspired by a question that someone asked on the /r/korean subreddit (I lurk around there sometimes; if you Reddit, please do check out that sub!). The question was why some verbs use -고 있다 and some use -아/어 있다. If you check the question link, you can see my short answer on the original question. Also, I’ve actually gone over these two in the past, in a post about the progressive tense. The purpose of this post is to sort of clarify the difference between the two with a bit more explanation and contrasting examples.

As I mentioned in my progressive tenses post, -고 있다 is used when an action is ongoing, and -아/어 있다 is used when someone or something is continuously existing in a certain state. So, we can think of -고 있다 as being active progressive and -아/어 있다 as stative progressive. To be active progressive, something must be putting forth some sort of effort into the action while stative progressive does not really require any sort of effort on the part of the subject. Let’s look at some examples:

앉고 있어요 (I’m sitting) vs 앉아 있어요 (I’m sitting).

앉고 있다 is what I call active progressive, meaning that the subject must be putting forth some sort of effort. If we think about the effort that goes into sitting, it would mostly include the physical motion of bending the knees to lower ourselves into the chair. But when do we say “I’m sitting” to mean “I’m currently bending my knees and lowering myself into my chair”? It sounds like a child back-sassing a teacher who wants him to stay in his seat during class:

TEACHER: “Kevin, sit down!”

KEVIN: (repeatedly doing a squatting-type motion over his chair, miming the action of sitting but never actually sitting down) “But look, I am sitting!”

When we say “I’m sitting,” we mean that our bottoms are planted on the seat and we aren’t exerting any effort to stay that way, other than perhaps keeping ourselves upright and balanced. So, the stative “앉아 있어요” is far preferable.


So, how do I answer the question?

Concerning the question of why some verbs use -고 있다 while some use -아/어 있다: Just like -고 있다 is strange with the verb 앉다, making -아/어 있다 preferable in that case, some verbs logically tend toward being active while others tend toward being stative (though you can make the unpreferred one work with a little mental gymnastic, more or less depending on the verb you choose). Let’s check out a few more examples:

민수 씨는 일어나고 있어요. (Minsu is getting up.)

한비 씨는 일어나 있어요. (Hanbi is up.)

Here we have both active and stative 일어나다 (to get up). In the first sentence, we can understand that Minsu is actively getting up—perhaps in his case, that involves a routine of turning off his alarm, stretching, and slowing getting out of bed. In the second sentence, we can understand that Hanbi is in the state of having already gotten up—she has already done the actual act of getting up, so now she is effortlessly in that state.

꽃이 피고 있어요. (The flowers are blooming.)

꽃이 펴 있어요. (The flowers have bloomed.)

Now we have active and stative 피다 (to bloom). We might use the active 피다 when it’s the time of year when the flowers are coming out, but not all of them are out yet, and the ones that aren’t out are not quite in full bloom. That is, the flowers are still actively blooming. Once we reach the peak bloom, we can use the stative, 펴 있다. Now the flowers are no longer actively blooming, but they are in the state that has resulted from that action.

일어나다 and 피다 are two verbs that can fit active or stative both fairly easily. However, it is a bit hard to think of other verbs that fit into both easily! When trying to decide if you need -고 있다 or -아/어 있다, just think about whether the subject of that verb is actually doing something, or if it is just existing in a certain way.

As always, happy studying~