Time to finish up the Korean tenses. The last tense I’m going to discuss is the Korean past perfect tense. This tense might sound familiar to the English past perfect, but it is not the same. The Korean past tense is far more limited in its use, but luckily it is easy to form. Let’s take a look.

Past Perfect Tense Use

Because of its English translated name, the Korean past perfect tense is one of the least understood tenses by foreigners. While the English name might be past perfect, the use of this tense is nothing like its English counterpart. Its use is far more limited and many of its English counterpart’s uses are covered by the Korean past tense.

All things considered the use of the Korean past perfect can be summed up in one sentence. You use the Korean past perfect tense when you are discussing something that happened in the past, but that something has no relation to the present. So whatever you talk, has little to no relevance to the present. Perhaps an example would make it clear:

Example: 댄 씨는 뚱뚱했었어요.

Translation: Dan was overweight. (However, now he is not overweight any more)

This is the only use for this tense. In all honesty, even when this tense could be used, generally people stick to the past tense. You won’t see this tense as often compared to all other tenses.

How To

You will notice that a lot of the rules on the conjugation of the Korean past perfect tense looks like a simple expansion of the past tense. However, you should remember that in the past perfect tense you treat 이다 and 아니다 as regular verbs. So instead of 4 distinct situations, you only have 3 distinct situation in the past perfect tense:

1. -았었어요

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 + 았었어요 = 살았었어요.
  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 + 았었어요 = 갔었어요.
  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 + 았었어요 = 왔었어요.
The Korean past perfect tense -았었어요
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The Korean past perfect tense -았었어요

2. -었었어요

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 + 었었어요 = 먹었었어요.
  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 + 었었어요 = 보냈었어요.
  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 + 었었어요 = 배웠었어.
  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 +었었어요 = 마셨었어요.

The copula and its negative counterpart follow these rules:

  • 이다 이 +었었어요 = 였었어요.
  • 아니다 아니 + 었었어요 = 아니었었어요.
The Korean past perfect tense: -었었어요
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The Korean past perfect tense: -었었어요

3. 하다

The third situation when dealing with the past perfect 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 past perfect tense: 했었어요
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The past perfect tense: 했었어요

Little sidenote

You actually have a choice with verbs with stems ending in either ㅜ or ㅗ in the past perfect 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: 줬었어요 is correct; but 주었었어요 is also correct.
  • 보다: 봤었어요 is correct; but 보았었어요 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 왔었어요.

Those were all the rules you need to know regarding the Korean past perfect tense.  With these rules you can conjugate any Korean verb, except the irregular verbs, without any problem. Please keep in mind the past tense is given preference over this tense. If you have any questions or suggestions let me know in the comments.