Korean Language Bank: The Past Tense -았/었다
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Unlike English where you have quite a few tenses to memorize, Korean only has four major tenses for you to master. The present tense, the past tense, the future tense and the progressive tense. In this article, we will tackle the past tense.

The past tense in Korean is not overly complicated once you understand how the basics of Korean grammar actually works. In Korean, you can express the tense with a tense marker. This is done for the future sometimes with -겠다, but also for the past tense with the -았/었다. These tense markers are what informs your listener or you, that what you’ve heard relates to the past. You call them tense markers because they merely indicate the tense. You still need to attach a verb ending to finish the verb’s conjugation.

An example:

가: 어제 식당에서 먹었어요.

나: 진짜요? 맛있었나요?

A: I ate at a restaurant yesterday.

B: Really? Was it delicious?

How To Use

The past tense in Korean is rather simple really. First, you simply need to attach the tense marker -았/었다 to the verb stem. Then you just remove the -다, leaving either -았 or -었 behind and continue conjugating like you would for the present tense. In fact, the conjugation rule for the past tense in Korean is very similar to the conjugation rules we’ve shown for the present tense. So if you’ve mastered those rules, the past tense will be very easy for you. You just need to keep the irregular verbs in mind like the ㅅ irregular verbs and the ㅎ irregular verbs.

Past Tense Conjugation Rules

When conjugating verbs and adjectives in the past tense, you will stumble upon 4 distinctive situations.  Those 4 situations are:

  1. -았다: When the final syllable of the verb stem ends with or in either the vowel ㅏ or ㅗ, you use the ending -았다. When the verb stem ends in a vowel, the form omits the 아 syllable, leaving just -았다. Attention: When the verb stem ends in ㅗ, the vowel and the form -았요 combine and form -왔요.
  2. -었다: When the final syllable ends with or in any other vowel, you use -었요. There are a few things to pay heed to:
    1. When the verb stem ends in ㅣ, the ㅣ and form -었요 combine to form -였요.
    2. When the verb stem ends in ㅜ, the ㅜ and form -었요 combine to form -웠요.
    3. If the verb stem ends in any other vowel than ㅣ and ㅜ, the 었 syllable of the form -었다 is omitted, leaving just 다 behind
  3. 했다: 하다 is always conjugated as 했다.
  4. 였다/이였다: The unique present tense form of 이다. When a noun ends in a vowel (no batchim), you use 였다. But, when it ends in a consonant (batchim), you use 이였다.

After you’ve done this, you just need to attach the proper verb ending behind. Keep in mind that various verb endings cannot be combined with the past tense marker. This is due to the fact that tense is not expressed in the part of the sentence those verb endings are used in. Some of the verb endings that cannot be used with the past tense marker are -(으)면서, -아/어서, -자마자, etc.

Lastly, you can add an additional past tense marker -었- to this form to create the form -았/었었다, which is sometimes called the Korean past perfect form. The difference between -았/었다 and this -았/었었다 is that the latter expresses that the past occurrence no longer continues in the present, while that is a possibility with the former.

Korean Language Bank Overview: The Past Tense -았/었다
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Korean Language Bank Overview: The Past Tense -았/었다
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