We just covered how to of the Korean present tense, so it is only natural that we cover the Korean past tense. The past tense in Korean is very easy to learn; especially if you’ve already mastered the present tense. The past builds upon present even in Korean grammar.

Past Tense Use

As was the case for the Korean present tense, the past tense is broader in its use than the English past tense. So you could use the Korean past tense when English would use a past perfect, past continuous or a simple past tense. When it comes to verb tenses Korean tends to be more laid back than some European languages.

However, it is possible to use the Korean progressive tense in the past tense to turn it into something similar to the English past continuous. The use of the Korean progressive tense in the past is nonetheless far more limited. Furthermore, the Korean language has a past perfect tense. Its use, however, is far more limited than its English counterpart. So in most cases a sentence using the English past perfect tense would be translated simply using the Korean past tense.

So when do you use this tense? You use it when talking about things in these four situations:

  • The action took place in the past.
  • You talk about an action that for was going on for a duration in the past. (see also Korean progressive tense)
  • You discuss a the past in general such as history.

How To

You will notice that a lot of the rules on the conjugation of the Korean past tense are near identical to the rules to form the Korean present tense. However, you should remember that in the past tense you treat 이다 and 아니다 as regular verbs. So instead of 4 distinct situations, you only have 3 distinct situation in the past tense:

1. -았어요

The first situation is when a verb stem’s final syllable contains the vowel ㅏ or ㅗ, mind you it is contains, not end in. If that is the case then you need to use the verb ending -았어요. When adding this verb ending, you end up with three distinct situations:

  1. The verb stem ends in a consonant, such as 살다: 살 + 았어요 = 살았어요.
  2. The verb stem’s last letter is the vowel ㅏ, such as 가다. If so the 아 syllable of the ending is removed: 가 + 았어요 = 갔어요.
  3. The verb stem’s last letter is ㅗ, such as 오. Then the 아  syllable of the ending disappears with its ㅏ combining with ㅗ to form ㅘ: 오 + 았어요 = 왔어요.
The Korean past tense: -았어요
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The Korean past tense: -았어요

2. -었어요

The second situation occurs when the verb’s final syllable contains any other vowel than ㅏ or ㅗ. Once again it is contains, not ends in. In that case the verb ending you need to use to form the past tense is -었어요. When ending this verb ending, you end up with four distinct possibilities:

  1. The verb stem ends in a consonant, such as 먹다: 먹 + 었어요 = 먹었어요.
  2. The verb stem’s last letter is either the vowels ㅐ, ㅓ or ㅕ, such as 보내다. If so,  the 어 syllable of the verb ending completely disappears: 보내 + 었어요 = 보냈어요.
  3. The verb ends in ㅜ, such as 배우다. In this case, the 어 syllable disappears and the ㅜ and ㅓ combines to form ㅝ: 배우 + 었어요 = 배웠어.
  4. The verb stem’s last letter is ㅣ, such as 마시다. If this is the case, the 어 syllable disappears with the ㅣ and ㅓ combining to form ㅕ: 마시 +었어요 = 마셨어요.

The copula and its negative counterpart follow these rules:

  • 이다 이 +었어요 = 였어요.
  • 아니다 아니 + 었어요 = 아니었어요.
The Korean past tense: -었어요
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The Korean past tense: -었어요

3. 하다

The third situation when dealing with the past tense in polite, informal style is with 하다 verbs. 하다 verbs have their own distinct form, which is pretty easy to remember. The conjugated form of 하다 is 했어요. That’s all that is to it and it is true for all 하다 verbs such as 싫어하다, 일하다, 전화하다, etc.

The Korean past tense: 했어요
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The Korean past tense: 했어요

Little sidenote

You actually have a choice with verbs with stems ending in either ㅜ or ㅗ in the past tense. You can either write the past tense using the combination method (ㅘ/ㅝ) or you can simply attach the past tense verb ending without combining the vowels. Example:

  • 주다: 줬어요 is correct; but 주었어요 is also correct.
  • 보다: 봤어요 is correct; but 보았어요 is also correct.

However, when the verb is 오다 you do not have this choice! The only correct spelling of the conjugated past tense form of 오다, is 왔어요.

Those were all the rules you need to know regarding the Korean past tense. With these rules you can conjugate any Korean verb, except the irregular verbs, without any problem. If you have any questions or suggestions let me know in the comments.