[Basic] Topic Marker 은[eun]/는[neun] vs. Subject Marker 이[i]/가[ga]

One of the most frequently asked question is the difference between topic marker 은 [eun] / 는 [neun] and the subject marker 이 [i] / 가 [ga]. As English has no concept of these markers, people get easily confused. Native speakers use them without thinking, but for foreigners, they are really tricky in Korean.

(When I’m asked about these markers in the beginner or low intermediate classes, I always say that it doesn’t need to be clearly understood yet. Don’t get too stressed out about this grammar point! Although you make some mistakes or omit the markers, Koreans don’t have any trouble understanding what you mean.)

Before breaking down the differences, let me explain to you the overall meaning of them first.

The main role of topic markers is letting the other people know what you’re talking about or going to talk about. Basically, you can think of the topic markers 은/ 는 as meaning “about” and “as for” (as opposed to something or someone else).

학생이에요. [jeoneun hakseng-ieyo]

As for me, I’m a student.

상민 친절한 사람이야. [sangmineun chinjeolhan saramiya]

As for Sangmin, he is a nice person.

Definitely awkward in English, but you could understand the meaning of the sentences, right?

The role of subject marker is relatively simple compared with that of topic marker. 이 / 가 show what the subject of the sentence is.

고향 어디예요? [gohyang-i eodiyeyo]

Where is your hometown?

제주도 제 고향이에요. [jejudoga je gohyang-ieyo]

Jeju Island is my hometown.

Still tricky, right? Let me explain in more detail.

1. Topic Marker 은/는: Old Information

Subject Marker 이/가: New Information

이 / 가 is used to ask about new information and 은 / 는 is used to answer the question.

Q :이름 뭐예요? [ireumi mwoyeyo]

What is your name?

A : 제 이름 이민재예요. [je ireumeun iminjeyeyo]

My name is Minjae Lee.

Q : 오늘 무슨 요일이에요? [oneu-li museun yoi-liyeyo]

What day is it today?

A : 오늘 토요일이에요. [oneu-leun toyoi-li yeyo]

Today is Saturday.

Also, 이 / 가 can be used when something is mentioned first and 은 / 는 is used to indicate what you have told.

테이블 위에 사과 있어요. 그 사과 맛있어 보여요. [teibeul wie sagwaga isseoyo. geu sagwaneun mashisseo boyeoyo]

There is an apple on the table. The apple looks delicious.

2. Topic Marker 은/는: General or Factual Statement

Subject Marker 이/가: Specific Statement

The topic marker 은 / 는 is used when you make general or factual statements, whereas the subject marker 이 / 가 is not.

For example,

치타 가장 빠른 동물이다. [chitaneun gajang ppa-leun dongmu-lida]

Cheetah is the fastest animal.

However, if you saw a cheetah moving very slowly, you might say,

치타 느리다. [chitaga neu-lida]

(That) cheetah is slow.

3. Topic Marker 은/는: Contrast or Comparison

Subject Marker 이/가: X

은 / 는, depending on context, can be used to compare or contrast two things.

지영 사과를 좋아해요. 그런데 수지 사과를 안 좋아해요. [jiyeong-eun sagwa-leul joaheyo. geureonde sujineun sagwa-leul an joaheyo]

Jiyoung likes apples, but Suji doesn’t like apples.

혜미가 사과 좋아해요. 그런데 바나나 안 좋아해요. [hemiga sagwaneun joaheyo. geureonde banananeun an joaheyo]

Hyemi likes apples, but she doesn’t like bananas.

오늘 일 안 해도 돼요. 그런데 내일 일 해야 돼요. [oneu-leun il an hedo dwayo. geureonde nei-leun il heya dwayo]

Today I don’t have to work. However, tomorrow I have to work.

4. Topic Marker 은/는: Focus on Description

Subject Marker 이/가: Focus on Subject

As you can guess from the name, subject marker 이 / 가 focuses on the subject and topic marker 은 / 는 focuses on the topic, in other words, action or description of the subject.

That’s why you always say “누가 [nuga] (who)? ” when you want to know who has done something. (누가 is an abbreviation of 누구 + 가.)

누가 아직 안 왔어? [nuga ajik an wasseo]

Who’s still not here?

Let’s see the difference with these conversations.

A : 누가 설거지 했어? [nuga seolgeoji hesseo]

Who did the dishes?

B : 수지 했어. [sujiga hesseo]

Suji did.

In the first conversation, person A is curious about the person who did the dishes. So, the focus of the answer is the subject. That’s why subject marker 가 is used twice, 누가 and 수지가.

A: 수지 지금 뭐해요? [sujineun jigeum mwoheyo]

What is Suji doing now?

B: 수지 지금 쇼핑하고 있어요. [sujineun jigeum shyopinghago isseoyo]

Suji is shopping now.

In the second conversation, person A is wondering what Suji is doing now. So, the focus of the answer is the action. That’s why topic marker 는 is used. As you guys have noticed, there are quite a few differences. I hope this helps you guys perfectly understand the usage of them!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post.

Don’t hesitate to comment below or contact me if you have any questions!

This posting is from the blog ‘Organic Korean.’
Original Post: http://organickorean.com/basic-topic-marker-%EC%9D%80%EB%8A%94-vs-subject-marker-%EC%9D%B4%EA%B0%80/
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Reference :

  1. Henry J. Amen IV. Korean For Beginners : Mastering Conversational Korean. North Clarendon, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing; 2010.
  2. David. Page F30: The difference between the 는 and 가 particles in Korean. Pagef30com. 2015. Available at: http://www.pagef30.com/2008/06/difference-between-and-particles-in.html. Accessed September 17, 2015.
  3. 김성수. 유학생을 위한 한국어 대학 글쓰기. 서울: 박이정; 2013.
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