In Korean formality and politeness are expressed in the verb. You infer politeness and formality by using a variety of verb endings. Properly understanding these verb endings is essential as improper use of them can be considered rude and even insulting. In this blog we so far used the regular ‘polite’, but informal level speech, -아/어요. Today I want to talk about a polite and formal speech level: -ㅂ니다/습니다. Let’s take a look.

The Speech Levels

The speech levels in Korean are perhaps one of the most complicated topics a Korean language learner will face. This is because the speech levels are not only a matter of grammar, but they are also a matter of culture. That cultural aspect is what causes that difficulty. For people who weren’t raised in a similar culture, have difficulties understanding the nuanced requirements for properly using the various speech levels.

If you want to properly speak Korean, however, you will have to master the various Korean speech levels. There are numerous speech levels. Luckily, though, you will only actively use a limited amount of them. Better yet, for the majority of your daily conversations you will encounter give or take only three speech levels. In English literature those speech levels are called: the formal level, the polite level and the informal level.

While the name of these speech levels in English is formal,  polite and informal. There is very distinct difference in politeness and formality in Korean. Speech levels can be lack a sense of politeness, but be formal, while others can be very polite, but lack any sense of formality. Therefore you should not assume that a more formal speech level is therefore also more polite in Korean.

In this article I want to talk about the so-called formal speech level. In Korean, this is known as 하십시오체. This speech level is both very polite and very formal.

-ㅂ니다/습니다, Formal Speech Level

The formal speech level, or 하십시오체 as it is known in Korean, is a speech level that is both polite and formal. Therefore you will hear it in formal settings and you ought to use it whenever you are in such a setting towards others. However, that is a simplification of the proper use of Korean speech levels.

For example: When you meet a stranger it is considered normal to start conversation in this formal speech level. This is done because neither you and your new conversation partner have any knowledge about the other. Once tidbits of information such as age occupation and other such things that represent your social status, you and your conversation partner will slowly move to a different, less formal, but still appropriate speech level such as the ‘normal’ polite level, -아/어요.

This speech level is used in these kinds of situations:

  • By TV announcers
  • Towards customers [plus using honorific language (존댓말)]
  • In certain fixed expressions like 만나서 반갑습니다
  • Among colleagues in formal settings (setting outside the norm)

-ㅂ니다/습니다 Conjugation

While properly utilizing the speech level is difficult, the verb conjugation of this speech level is rather easy, though that can be said about all verb endings. In this article we will focus on the most important variations that you will encounter in Korean, meaning the three tenses: the present tense, the past tense and the future tense.

However, when it comes to conjugating all you need to know that the formal speech level ending is -ㅂ니다/습니다. This conjugation rule is a variation of the ‘Batchim/no batchim’ rule we discussed in-depth before. However, the formal tense has a distinction between declarative sentences (= normal sentences, meaning statements) and interrogative sentences (= questions). You use the ending ending -ㅂ니다/습니다 for declarative sentences. But, the ending for interrogative sentences, meaning questions, you use a different set of endings. -ㅂ니까? and -습니까?

Formal Present Tense

The present tense is rather easy. Instead of using the -아/어요 ending we normally use on this blog, you have to use the ending -ㅂ니다/습니다 or -ㅂ니까/습니까 for questions. These verb endings follows the the ‘Batchim/no batchim’ rule, meaning you decide between those forms depending the presence of a batchim, a final consonant in the last syllable of the verb stem. The rules for the formal conjugation go as follows:

  1. If the verb stem ends in a vowel you use -ㅂ니다; or -ㅂ니까 for questions.
  2. If it ends in a consonant, you use -습니다; or -습니까 for questions.

Those rules also apply to copulative verbs 이다 and 아니다. Furthermore, you will only have to keep one Korean irregular verb group in mind, the ㄹ irregular verbs.

Let’s look at a few, simple example sentences:

Example 1: 호텔은 산에서 멉니까?

Translation: Ist the hotel far from the mountain?

Example 2: 어린이 가격은 50 000 원입니다

Translation: The price for children is 50 000 won.

Example 3: 맛있는 초콜릿은 벨기에 안에서 가격이 저렴합니다.

Translation: Delicious chocolate is affordable in Belgium.

Korean Formal Present Tense
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A short overview on the Korean formal present tense.

Formal Past Tense

The formal past tense is not much different from the present tense. The only difference is the added of the tense marker -았/었- that we’ve already seen in the polite past tense, -았/었어요. So that turns the formal past tense endings into: -았/었습니다 for regular sentences and -았/었슴니까 for questions. The rules for the rest of the conjugation remain the same as the regular past tense, being:

  • If a verb stem’s final syllable either has ㅏ or ㅗ, or ends in either, you use -았습니다; or -았슴니까 for questions.
  • If not, you use the ending -었습니다; or -었슴니까 for questions.
  • However, for 하다 verbs, the ending turns into -했습니다; or -했슴니까 for questions.

Because of the addition for the tense marker, the formal past tense has the same issues with irregular Korean verbs as the polite past tense.

Let’s look at a few, simple example sentences:

Example 1: 워싱턴은 미국의 첫번째 대통령였습니다.

Translation: Washington was the first president of the United States.

Example 2: 지난 주에 부산행 열차는 지연됐습니까?

Translation: Was the train to Busan delayed last week?

Example 3: 작년 겨울에 눈이 많이 왔습니다.

Translation: It snowed a lot last Winter.

Korean Formal Past Tense
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A short overview on the Korean formal past tense.

Formal Future Tense

The future tense, however, is a bit different from the polite future tense -(으)ㄹ 거예요. The endings for the formal future tense are -(으)ㄹ 겁니다 for regular sentences and -(으)ㄹ 겁니까 for questions. While form is slightly different, the conjugation rules remain the same. Those rules are:

  1. If the verb stem ends in a vowel or ㄹ you use -ㄹ 겁니다; or -ㄹ 겁니까 for questions.
  2. If it ends in a consonant, you use -을 겁니다; or -을 겁니까 for questions.

Since its conjugation is the same to the polite future tense, it also has the same issues with Korean irregular verbs.

Example 1: 다음 주 월요일에 날씨가 더울 겁니다.

Translation: Next Monday the weather will be hot.

Example 2: 올해 새로운 지하철역을 건설할 겁니다.

Translation: This year they will build a new subway station.

Example 3: 도대체 뭐하는 겁니까?

Translation: What the hell are you doing ?

Korean Formal Future Tense
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A short overview on the Korean formal future tense.