Korean: Simple Past Tense Verb Conjugation

Common Politeness Levels in Korean

Note: If you are familiar with politeness levels in the Korean language, you are welcome to skip down to the conjugation information and examples. 

Before we dive into the wonderful world of verb conjugation, let me give you all a quick rundown of politeness levels. In the US, we primarily use words such as “sir”, “ma’am”, “miss”, etc. to show that we have a certain amount of respect towards that person. In Korean, this gesture of politeness is built in to the language. There are 7 speech levels in total, but there are three primary speech levels that are used more in everyday life. Therefore, we’ll focus on those for now and I may cover the others in a later post.

Formal (존댓말): – (았/었/였)습니다 Used when speaking to senior, elderly, someone important, or someone new. (Examples: your boss, professor, someone you met on the street)
Polite (존댓말): – (았/었/였)요 Used when speaking to someone you know well or in a non-business setting. (Examples: classmates, restaurant servers, friends older than you)
Casual (반말): – 았/었/였 Used when speaking to someone you are very close with or have permission to speak 반말 with. (Examples: someone younger than you, siblings, significant other)

If you want to be safe and not sure what to use, the formal versions will be the safest way not to accidentally offend someone.

A great resource for learning more about politeness levels can be found HERE. The linked lesson is from the amazing people at TalkToMeInKorean.com. I absolutely LOVE their stuff, and it is one of the best resources I have found during my Korean language journey. Definitely check them out!

Simple Past Tense

In English, examples of simple past tense would be “I ate an apple.”, “I ran today.”, or “I walked the dog.”  In this lesson, we will be creating example sentences like these in Korean to help you begin your Korean conversational journey.

Let me premise this by saying that the highest politeness level does not follow the rules I have listed below; the rules below will use the second politeness level since it is more commonly used in conversation. If you are using the formal level, you will just take off the 다 (as you’ll see below) and add one of the three options listed in the table above depending on the last vowel of the verb stem, or 였습니다 if using a verb with 하다 (conjugated = 했습니다).

Simple Past Tense Conjugation Rules:

  • If the last vowel ends in ㅏor ㅗ , drop 다 and add 았어 (casual) or 았어요 (polite)
  • If the last vowel ends in any other vowel, drop 다 and add 었어 (casual) or 었어요 (polite)
  • If the last vowel ends in 하다, drop 다 and change 하 to 했어 (casual) or 했어요 (polite)

Conjugation Examples for Each Rule:

Verb: to buy (사다)

Formal: Polite: Casual:
샀습니다 샀어요 샀어

Verb: to eat (먹다)

Formal: Polite: Casual:
먹었습니다 먹었어요 먹었어

Verb: to work(일하다)

Formal: Polite: Casual:
일했습니다 일했어요 일했어

Example Sentences:

Korean English
오늘 일했어요. I worked today.
저는 먹었어요. I ate rice.
나는 고양이원했어. I wanted a cat.
나는 목소리들었어. I heard a voice.
어제수요일이었습니다. Yesterday was Wednesday.

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