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Word Stems of Korean Verbs and Adjectives

To study this grammar point, please make sure you understand the following:

Similarities and Differences Between Korean Verbs and Adjectives

We know a regular verb in English may be modified to its past tense form by adding suffix ed to it, and English adjectives use verb to be (e.g. was) to represent past tense.

In Korean, however, adjectives are verb-like in grammatical constructions, and both verbs and adjectives follow a similar set of rules to conjugate to their modified forms.

Korean verbs and adjectives are mostly regular, meaning that they follow a simple rule to conjugate. For the remaining irregular verbs and adjectives, the good news is, they are not as “irregular” as English verbs. There is one set of conjugation rules for each group of irregular verbs and adjectives.

Word stem is the basic unit to conjugate. Regular verb or adjective only has an original stem for conjugation. Irregular verb or adjective has an additional alternate stem, as explained in the section below.

Original Stems of Korean Verbs and Adjectives

When a Korean verb or adjective is in plain form (the form you can look up from a dictionary), it always ends with .

It is then easy to identify the original stem:

Get the original stem of any verb or adjective by removing the last hangul 다 of the plain form of the word.

Alternate Stems of Korean Verbs and Adjectives

You will need to know what kind of irregular verb/adjective it is, before identifying its alternate stem.

Verbs/Adjectives Alternate Stem Formation from Original Stem
Regular Keep the original stem unchanged
ㅂ-Irregular Drop final consonant ㅂ, add hangul 우**
ㅅ-Irregular Drop final consonant ㅅ
ㄷ-Irregular Replace final consonant ㄷ with ㄹ
ㅎ-Irregular Drop final consonant ㅎ
ㄹ-Irregular Drop final consonant ㄹ
으-Irregular Keep the original stem unchanged
르-Irregular Add ㄹ as an ending consonant to the second to last hangul

** There is an additional alternate stem for 2 ㅂ-irregular words for 어-type conjugation: 돕다 (to help) and 곱다 (to be pretty), by replacing the final consonant ㅂ with hangul 오.

Examples

Verbs/Adjectives Dictionary Form Meaning Original Stem Alternate Stem
Regular 먹다 eat
ㅂ-Irregular 춥다 cold 추우
돕다 help 도우 or 도오
ㅅ-Irregular 낫다 better
ㄷ-Irregular 듣다 listen
ㅎ-Irregular 그렇다 to be so 그렇 그러
ㄹ-Irregular 달다 sweet
으-Irregular 쓰다 write
르-Irregular 고르다 choose 고르 골르

See Formal Polite Form of Verbs and Adjectives for examples of using original stems for conjugation. See Informal Polite Form of Verbs and Adjectives for examples of using alternate stems for conjugation.

There is no definitive rule to identify if a verb/adjective is regular or not. However, by looking at the final consonant of the original stem, you can tell it is not irregular if it does not have the irregular stem ending.