Posted on Leave a comment

The copula 이다 and the verb of existence and location 있다/없다

In English, copulas “am,” “are,” and/or “is” can express at least two things. First they are used to indicate the equational expression (e.g., something equals something), as in “John is a student” or “Hyundai is an automobile company.” In addition, they indicate that something is located or existing as in “There are Korean people” or “Honolulu is in Hawaii.” In Korean, two different words express these two functions. For the equational expression, Korean has the copula 이다. For the verb of existence or location, Korean has the verb 있다 (or 없다 for negation).

Equational expressions 이에요/예요

The dictionary form for the Korean copula is 이다. The stem of the copula is 이 (as you take 다 “the dictionary ending” out). With the polite speech level ending, the copula 이다 becomes 이에요 for the preceding noun that ends in a consonant, as in 데니엘이에요 “(I) am Daniel.” For the preceding noun that ends in a vowel, the copula 이다 becomes 예요 as in 앤드류예요 “(I) am Andrew.” With different speech levels, such as the deferential speech level ending, the copula becomes 입니다 ( 이 + ㅂ니다 ).

이에요/예요 always follows the noun it expresses. In other words, it cannot be used separately from the noun. For instance, consider the following sentences:

캐티는 선생님이에요. “As for Cathy, (she) is a teacher”

데니엘은 의사예요. “As for Daniel, (he) is a medical doctor”

Notice that 이에요 attaches to 선생님 (since the last syllable 님 ends in a consonant ㅁ), while in the second sentence, 예요 comes after 의사 (as the last syllable 사 ends in the vowel ㅏ).

Negation -이/가 아니에요

The Korean copula for negation is 아니다. The stem of the negative copula 아니 becomes 아니에요 with the polite speech level ending. For negating an equational expression, the subject/complement particle 이/가 is used with 아니에요, as in:

니콜은 한국 사람이 아니에요. “As for Nicole, (she) is not a Korean”

매튜는 엔지니어가 아니에요. “As for Matthew, (he) is not an engineer”

Notice that the noun that is being negated has the subject particle 이 (after the noun ending in a consonant) or 가 (after the noun endings in a vowel)

Existence and location with 있어요 / 없어요 and case particle 에

The Korean verb 있다 means “exist/exists” or “there is/are.” For negation, Korean has a separate verb 없다 “do/does not exist” or “is/are not located.” Since 있다 expresses “something exists” or “something is located (somewhere),” is is normal called the verb of existence and location.

When referring to a location of an object, you need a location, a locative particle “에,” and the verb of existence and location “있어요.” For instance, consider the following sentence.

존이 런던에 있어요. “John is in London”

호놀룰루가 하와이에 있어요. “Honolulu is in Hawaii”

Notice that the locations (런던, 하와이) are marked by the particle 에, and they are followed by the verb 있어요. For more specific location reference, various Korean location nouns can be used. Korean has the following location nouns:

  • 위 above
  • 아래 below
  • 밑 under
  • 뒤 behind
  • 앞 front
  • 안 inside
  • 밖 outside
  • 옆 side
  • 오른쪽 right side
  • 왼쪽 left side

Using one of the location nouns, you can be more explicit in referring to the location and/or position of the noun, as in 책이 책상 위에 있어요 “The book is one the table.”

You may wonder if these location words are like various prepositions in English such as “above,” “below,” “on,” “beside,” and “behind.” These English prepositions are similar to Korean location nouns in the sense that they both function to indicate the specific reference of the location. However, they are different in two aspects. First, while English prepositions always appear before the object of the location (as in “above the table”), those in Korean always appear after the object (as in 책상 위 “table-above”). Another difference is that these Korean postpositional elements are nouns and they are normally followed by the locative particle 에, whereas English prepositional elements are not nouns.

있다 vs. 이다

When asking for the specific location of a certain object, Koreans use the question word 어디 “where” with the verb 있다, as in:

은행이 어디(에) 있어요? “Where is the bank (ill., where does the bank exist)?”

Notice that the question words 어디 appears right before the verb 있어요. One can use 이에요 with 어디, as in 은행이 어디예요? “Where is the bank?” However, notice that the question does not seek the specific location of 은행, rather it simply questions the general whereabouts of 은행. In other words, the copula 이에요 cannot be used to refer to the location of an object.

For example, for the above question, a response such as 은행이 학교 도서관 뒤에 있어요 “The bank is (lit., exists) behind the school library” is acceptable. However, 은행이 학교 도서관 뒤예요 “The bank is the back of the school library” is not acceptable since these two responses do not mean the same thing. For another example, take the following two sentences:

서울이 한국에 있어요. (O) “Seoul is in Korea (lit., Seoul exists in Korea).”

서울이 한국이에요. (X) “Seoul is Korea.”

As seen above, these two sentences do not have the same meaning.

The use of 있다/없다 to express “possession”

Another meaning of 있다/없다 is to express one’s possession. In the following example, 있다/없다 is better translated as “have/has.”

피터는 애플 컴퓨터(가) 있어요. “As for Peter, (he) has an Apples Computer.”

The literal translation of the above sentence may be “As for Peter, there is an Apple Computer” or “As for Peter, an Apple Computer exists.” However, it actually means (or is better translated into English) “As for Peter, (he) has an Apple Computer.” Notice that Apple Computer is marked by the subject particle 이/가. KFL Learners, whose native language is English, tend to make an error using 을/를 the object particle (instead of 이/가). This is because of the native language transfer effect. They intuitively judge the verb “have” should have an object, since its direct English translation may be “Peter has an Apple Computer.”


This post is a part of “Basic Korean: A grammar and workbook”, Andrew Sangpil Byon.

Leave a Reply