Monday, August 3, 2015

The Special Particle 「은/는」

The special particle 은/는 is a topic particle since it marks the noun as the sentence topic. The particle 은/는 is not a case particle; hence it does not indicate the grammatical function of the noun it attaches to.

Marking topics

In a similar way that the subject particle has two forms 이 and 가, the topic particle also has two forms: 은(after consonants) and 는(after vowels). Consider the following two sentences:


Notice that 수잔 is marked by 은, whereas 데니 is marked by 는. In addition, the above two sentences are “topic-comment” structures: a sentence begins with a topic of the sentence, followed by the predicate. In the first sentence above, 수잔 is the topic and 한국 사람이에요 is the comment. In the second sentence, 데니 is the topic, while 미국 사람이에요 is the comment. Such a topic comment structure is the most basic sentence type in Korean.
To understand its usage in more detail, let us consider the following examples:


Notice that the first three sentences are about Leah. Because of the fact that Leah was noted as the topic in the first sentence, it would be redundant to raise Leah as the topic again. Consequently, the second and the third sentence omit the topic 리아. However, as the fourth sentence is about a different person 제임스, the sentence begins with the new topic, 제임스.
The noun marked by 은/는 appears to be the subject of the sentence. However, 은/는 is not a subject particle and it does not mark the noun as the subject. For instance, consider the following sentence:


Notice that the hamburger is the topic of the sentence, whereas “Smith Hamburger” is the subject of the predicate “tasty".

Compare and contrast

When two sentences, marked by the topic particles 은/는, are used in parallel, the particle 은/는 serves to compare and contrast the two topics of the sentences. Consider the following two examples:


Notice that both Justin and Chieko are the topics of each sentence. Since these sentences are used in parallel, these two topics are compared and contrasted.

Switching topics

Koreans use the topic particle 은/는 when they switch the topic from one thing to another. For instance, consider the following conversation.


Let us assume that speaker A is a customer and speaker B is a saleswoman in the above conversation. Notice that speaker A uses the topic particle 은/는 when she changes the topic from one item to another.

Interplay between the subject and the topic particles

When asking a question in Korean, the question word is usually marked by the subject particle 이/가. However, when answering the question, the question word is often marked by the topic particle 은/는. Consider the following examples:


In Peter’s question, the particle 이/가 is used since 전공(major) is the subject of the question. However, when responding to this question, Susan answers 전공은 한국어예요 (As for my major, it)is Korean), instead of 전공이 한국어예요(The major is Korean). Notice that 전공 is marked by the topic particle 은/는, not the subject particle 이/가.
When Peter asks the question, 전공 is the subject of the sentence and it is not the topic of the conversation yet. In other words, the word 전공 is new information which was just brought up in the conversation. However, after Peter’s question, 전공 becomes the topic. As a result, Susan replies with 전공이 rather than 전공은.
This may sound confusing but, it should become clear with more examples. Consider the following examples:


Appearing at the beginning of the sentence

You can make any element of the sentence the topic by adding the topic particle to it and placing it at the beginning of the sentence, except the verb/adjective that appears at the end of the sentence. For example, consider the following sentences:


As a SOV language, in Korean the most important sentential elements tend to appear at the end of the sentence. The less important or least unknown information tend to appear toward the beginning of the sentence. Notice in the above sentences that the 은/는 -marked elements appear at the beginning of the sentence. The topic of the sentence in Korean tends to be the contextually understood element, and thus it can be often easily omitted during conversation.
This contrasts with the subject marked by the particle 이/가. The subject particle 이/가 is used to mark a subject. For instance, this explains why most interrogative words such as 누구(who), 무엇(what), 언제(when), and 어느(which), are used with the particle 이/가, as in 누구(가), and 무엇이, but not with the topic particle 은/는:


* Click to read related posts.
Grammar for Beginners
Copula(Be & Be Not, 이다 & 아니다)
Particles Part.1 (What are the particles in Korean)
Particles Part.2 (Case Particles)
Particles Part.3 (Special Particles)
The Special Particle 「만」
The Special Particle 「도」
The Special Particle 「이나」
The Special Particle 「부터, 까지」
Question Words(의문사) & Indefinite Pronouns(부정대명사)

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