Korean Past Tense – How to Express Earlier Actions

If you want to indicate something in the Korean past tense, you will be using the verb endings -었/았/ㅆ어요 (-eot/at/sseoyo). These work similarly to -d or -ed when expressing the past tense in English.

Girl pointing on a digital clock

In this guide, we will teach you the rules and forms of Korean past tense. This will help you express past activities accurately in Korean.

Quick Summary

  • Korean has three main tenses: present, past, and future.
  • The common endings for forming the past tense in Korean are -었/았/ㅆ어요 (-eot/at/sseoyo), depending on the final vowel of the verb stem.
  • To conjugate a verb into the past tense, remove the -다 from the verb stem and add the appropriate past tense ending.
  • Specific rules affect how the past tense is formed for verbs ending in certain consonants or vowel sounds.

Brief Overview of Korean Verb Tenses

The Korean language has three tenses: present tense, past tense, and future tense. They’re all important to know for proper conjugation. Luckily, they should also be quite simple to grasp. Today, we will go over the past tense.

Past Tense Endings

The endings for past tense are as follows: 

  • 었 (-eot)
  • -았 (-at)
  • -ㅆ어요 (-sseoyo) 

Your first step is determining which vowel the stem of a verb or adjective ends with.

Generally, for words where the stem’s vowel ends in either ㅏ(a) or ㅗ (u), the correct ending to use is 았어요 (asseoyo). For example, words like 좋았어요 (joasseoyo), 살았어요 (sarasseoyo), and 받았어요 (badasseoyo). 

With any other vowel, the correct ending to add on is 었어요 (eosseoyo). For example, 먹었어요 (meogeosseoyo), 있었어요 (isseosseoyo) and 읽었어요 (ilgeosseoyo).

How do you form the past tense in Korean?

To conjugate verbs into past tense, you’ll need to drop the -다, leaving you with only the stem. This is what you will now combine with the past tense.

For example, the verb 먹다 (meokda). Because ㅓ is the final vowel, you combine it with -었어요 (-eosseoyo). In other words, 먹다 (meokda) now becomes 먹었어요 (meogeosseoyo).

Korean Past Tense Rules

Korean Past Tense Conjugation Rules

In addition, you must follow some specific rules when creating the past tense.

1. Word stems ending in ㅏ or ㅗ and no 받침

A good example of this are words such as 가다 (gada), 사다 (sada), and 자다 (jada). In each of these, the stem’s final vowel is ㅏ. However, there is no 받침 (batchim) or final consonant like in the above words. 

Therefore, adding -았어요 (-eosseoyo) seems a little unnatural, as the verb would then become 가았어요 (gaasseoyo) and so on. Thus, instead, only -ㅆ어요 (sseoyo) gets added on, and this way, their past tense is spelled out 갔어요 (gasseoyo), 샀어요 (sasseoyo), 잤어요 (jasseoyo), and so on.

Similarly, with words like 오다 (oda) and 보다 (boda), it equally sounds unnatural to build them as 오았어요 (oasseoyo) or 보았어요 (boasseoyo.). Therefore, in these cases, the stem and the tense are “squished” together, forming 왔어요 (wasseoyo), 봤어요 (bwasseoyo), and so on.

2. Word stems ending in ㄷ

If the word stem ends in ㄷ, the ㄷ gets dropped and replaced with ㄹ. 

For example, the verb 걷다 (geotda) will lose the ㄷ and gain ㄹ for the sake of a more natural pronunciation. The past tense ending for a word stem with ㅡ being the final vowel is 었어요 (eosseoyo).

In the end, 걷다 (geotda) transforms into 걸었어요 (georeosseoyo).

Note, however, that this doesn’t concern all stems ending in ㄷ. The above rule is for irregular verbs. The conjugation into the past tense can vary depending on whether the verb is regular or irregular

For example, with 받다 (batda), which is a regular verb, the ㄷ remains in the past tense, which is 받았어요 (badasseoyo). In other words, it mostly concerns if the past tense ending to use is 었어요 (eosseoyo).

3. Word stems ending in ㅂ

If the word stem ends in ㅂ, the ㅂ gets dropped. In its place, you will add 우.

For example, let’s use the adjective 돕다 (dopda). You remove the ㅂ and add on 우. Briefly, it will look like 도 + 우 + 았다.

To make it make more sense, combine the 우 together with 았어요 (asseoyo) so that the finished past tense looks like 도왔어요 (dowasseoyo).

Similarly, for any verb that finishes with 우, such as 배우다 (baeuda), you can combine the 우 in the 었어요 tense for more concise writing and natural pronunciation.

However, as with the above rule, this also does not concern every single verb ending in ㅂ, the above rule is for irregular verbs. So, for example, in the case of a regular verb 잡다 (japda), despite the stem ending in ㅂ, it gets combined with 았어요 ending without removing the ㅂ, which is 잡았어요 (jabasseoyo).

4. Word stems ending in ㅡ or ㅅ

If the stem ends in either of these letters, like in 바쁘다 (bappeuda) and 쓰다 (sseuda), or 낫다 (natda) and 씻다 (ssitda), you will drop them and then add the past tense conjugation directly. Depending on the final vowel, you will either choose 었다 (eotda) or 았다 (atda).

If the word stem ends with ㅡ, you drop ㅡ and check at the vowel in the syllable before ㅡ (eu). If the syllable before ㅡ has ㅏ (a) or ㅗ (o), such as in the case of 바쁘다 (bappeuda), you will add -았어요 (asseoyo), which makes 바빴어요 (bappasseoyo). If there is no other vowel before ㅡ, such as in the case of 쓰다 (sseuda), you will add 었어요 (eosseoyo), which becomes 썼어요 (sseosseoyo). 

If the word stem ends with ㅅ, first you drop ㅅ and check the last vowel before ㅅ. If the last vowel before ㅅ isㅏ (a) or ㅗ (o), you will add -았어요. For example, 낫다 (natda) becomes 나았어요 (naasseoyo). If the last vowel before ㅅ is any other vowels, you will add 었어요. For example, 씼다 (ssitda) becomes 씼었어요 (ssiseossoyo).

Note, however, that this doesn’t concern all stems ending in ㅅ. The above rule is for irregular verbs. In the case of regular verbs, such as 벗다 (beotda), the ㅅ remains in the past tense, which is 벗었어요 (beoseosseoyo).

5. Word stems ending in 르

Here, you will drop the ㅡ. However, you will also need to add another ㄹ to the word stem.

For example, let’s use the verb 바르다 (bareuda). You will drop the ㅡ, but add ㄹ. Thus, 바르 becomes 발ㄹ. Then, you add the past tense ending that best corresponds with the rules. In this case, 았어요 (asseoyo). The final result will be 발랐어요 (ballasseoyo).

6. 이다 and 하다 and 아니다

Finally, these three follow their very own rules.

With 이다 (ida), the proper ending to add is 었어요 (eosseoyo). However, if the word ends in a vowel, the ending shapes up as 였어요 (yeosseoyo), and if it ends in a consonant, the ending will be 이었어요 (ieosseoyo). For example, 배우이다 (baeuida)becomes 배우였어요 (baeuyeosseoyo), and 부모님이다 (bumonida) becomes 부모님이었어요 (bumonimieosseoyo).

With 하다 (hada), the correct ending to add is 았어요 (asseoyo). However, instead of forming it as 핬어요 (hasseoyo), you must write 했어요 (haesseoyo).

With 아니다 (anida), you must write the past tense as 아니었어요 (anieosseoyo), rather than combining it together as 아닜어요 (anisseoyo), like you may think to do with other stems ending in the vowel ㅣ.

What to do next after learning the Korean Past Tense

To further your understanding of Korean and enhance your language skills, consider exploring these additional topics:

  • Korean Verbs: Deepen your understanding of Korean verbs, their types, and uses.
  • Korean Conjugation: Learn the rules and patterns for conjugating verbs across different tenses and formalities.
  • Korean Particles: Master the use of Korean particles to structure sentences accurately.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Below, we’ve listed down the most commonly asked questions about Korean Past Tense.

How do you form the past tense in Korean?

To form the past tense in Korean, you add -았/었/ㅆ어요 to the verb stem. The choice of which one to use depends on the vowel before it. For example, the verb 먹다 (to eat) changes to 먹었어요 in the past tense.

How many tenses are in Korean?

Korean uses three main tenses: present, past, and future tenses.

What is the past tense of “to buy” in Korean?

The past tense of “to buy” in Korean is 샀어요 (sasseoyo).


Now, you’ve learned how to correctly apply the Korean past tense through the proper use of endings like -았/었/ㅆ어요. 

Look out for the last vowel and match it with the right verb ending. Also, take note of the specific rules you might encounter. Yes, just like 가다 (gada), where the stem ends with ㅏ, and it doesn’t have a final consonant,  you can use -ㅆ어요 (sseoyo) instead of -았어요 (-eosseoyo).

Now that you’re familiar with these past tense structures, why not test your skills and practice in the comments below? You can share examples or ask questions if you’re unsure about any conjugations!

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