Particle: What’s up With 이/가 And 은/는: Specific VS Nonspecific

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Yesterday I wrote about the subject particle 이/가 and mentioned that it is part of a very confusing Korean grammar topic. The confusing aspect of 이/가 is its striking resemblance to to the topic particle 은/는. Many learners often struggle seeing any difference between the two. Time thus for give some differences explored starting with specific vs nonspecific.

However, this topic is terribly difficult. If you ask a Korean to explain why one is better than the other, they will most likely shrug their shoulders and say they just feel it. Indeed, you should be able to relate to them since you would scarcely be able to explain the intricate complexity of your own native language.

Luckily through careful interrogation of my Korean partner I’ve come across certain patterns I like to share with you. I would like to thank a tweet I received for giving me the idea to properly investigate the differences between 이/가 And 은/는.

Definite VS Indefinite

Before I talk about Korean, let’s talk about some English grammar topic: articles. If you happen to have a friend who speaks a language without articles they struggle to use a/an and the appropriately. They often don’t feel the subtle nuance those articles bring.

Imagine if you can we were to make a general statements about cats. In that case we would always use the indefinite article a. We do this because we are not talking about a specific cat, but about cats in general. Take this sentence for example: “A cat is cute.” We all would know I think cats in general are cute.

Now if I were to use the, the definite article, people will know that I’m not talking about cats in general, but about a specific cat. If I were to say “The cat is angry.”; people will realize that there is a specific cat, likely one we can see, that is angry. It is a nuance brought to you by a simple grammatical topic; the article.

Now you might be wondering why am I explaining English grammar to you. The reason is simple. One of the many differences between 은/는 and 이/가 is similar, but I would like to call it specific vs nonspecific since it creates less issues as you can’t just rely on how English handles things.

The Nonspecific 은/는

은/는 is in a certain way akin to the indefinite article, but not really. You cannot 100% of the time use 은/는 when you use a/an in English. However, the main idea, that you use it when stating a generalized fact about something is the same. So I think it is better to say it is nonspecific. When you want to say a general fact about the sea, you will use 은/는 instead of the subject particle.

For example you wanted to let someone know that the sea is blue. In Korean you will say the following using 은/는:

Example: 바다 파래요.

The Specific 이/가

In contrast to that you have 이/가. 이/가 is used when you want to say something about a specific thing, rather than say a generalizing fact about a whole entity. The best example is that you imagine yourself standing in front of a sea and that sea is so beautiful and you want to tell what you think to someone. In that case you will use 이/가 rather than 은/는:

Example: 바다 아름답네요.

So you need to realize that the particles bring a different nuance to a sentence. you can write the exact same sentence using 은/는 and 이/가, but the sentences will have a nuance difference.

Example #1: 꽃의 냄새가 좋아요. – A flower’s scent is nice. (This one flower has a nice scent..)

Example #2: 꽃의 냄새는 좋아요. – The flower’s scent is nice. (Flowers in general have a nice scent)

More Differences

While I may have explained a big difference, it is just one difference. The differences between 은/는 and 이/가 are far more complex than I can explain in just one post. There is just so much nuance to discuss that I simply cannot do it one post and actually I still haven’t figured out how to explain the next part.

Any questions or if you want to share your own knowledge is welcomed. Just leave a comment below. I would love to discuss this topic in detail with others. I do hope this has helped by uncovering the difference between the 이/가 and 는/은.

이/가 - 은/는- Specific vs Nonspecific Summary
A summary one the difference between 이/가 and 은/는 regarding specific and unspecific.

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April 6, 2017

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