Passive form

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The passive voice is a grammatical voice in which the subject receives the action of a transitive verb. Passive voice emphasizes the process rather than who is performing the action. In Korean this form is called 피동. There are few patterns to help distinguish between active and passive voices in Korean verbs. This makes this more difficult to learn than a regular Korean grammar rule.

Passive verbs still work as action verbs but now the object (that usually takes 을 or 를) has become the subject of the sentence (takes the particles: 이 or 가).

  • 막아요. [Traffic] blocks the road.
  • 막혀요. The road is blocked [by traffic]. (막히다 is much more common in this scenario)

Some active voice English expressions should be translated to the passive form in Korean. (Only using the passive form is natural in Korean.)

  • It looks fine. ☞ 괜찮아 보여요. [It] is seen to be fine.
  • It sounds like English. ☞ 영어처럼 들려요. [It] is heard like English.
  • I can't see the blackboard well. ☞ 칠판이 잘 안 보여요. The blackboard is not seen well (by me).
  • Can you hear my voice? ☞ 내 목소리 들리냐? Is my voice heard (by you)?
  • The game has begun. ☞ 게임이 시작되었다. The game has been begun. (a game can't begin something because it has no ability to decide. there must be a human who had decided to begin the game. the "game" is passive, not active.)
  • This book is selling very well. ☞ 이 책은 아주 잘 팔리고 있다. This book is being sold very well. (a book can't sell something because it's not a human. the "book" is passive, not active.)
  • The door is opening. ☞ 문이 열리고 있다. The door is being opened. (a door can't open something because it has no ability to decide. If a door is opening, there must be something else affecing the door such as wind, dog, installed automatic mechanism, etc. the "door" is passive, not active.)

Some Korean passive forms should be translated to the active voice in English. (Both the active and passive forms are natural in Korean, but only the active voice is natural in English.)

  • 이 현실이 믿기지가 않았다. This reality was not believed (by me). ☞ ([I] couldn't believe this reality.)
  • 이 현실을 믿을 수가 없었다. [I] couldn't believe this reality.

Some passive voice English expressions should be translated to the active form in Korean. (Both the active and passive voices are natural in English, but only the active form is natural in Korean.)

  • I was interviewed. ☞ 나는 면접을 받았다. (I received an interview.) : "-을 받다" can be considered a passive form itself.
  • I was brought here. 나는 여기에 데려와졌다. (although it can be literally translated, it sounds unnatural in Korean.) ☞ 그 사람이 나를 여기에 데려왔다. (He brought me here.)
  • I was told that you are my son. ☞ 네가 내 아들이라고 들었다. ([I] heard that you are my son.)

※Grammar Breakdown
네가 내 아들 : you my son
네가 내 아들이다 : You are my son.
네가 내 아들이다라고 : - that "You are my son"
네가 내 아들이라고 : - that you are my son
네가 내 아들이라고 들었다 : Heard that you are my son.
네가 내 아들이라고 하는 : - that tells that you are my son
네가 내 아들이라고 하는 이야기 : a story that tells that you are my son
네가 내 아들이라고 하는 이야기를 들었다 : Heard a story that tells that you are my son.
네가 내 아들이라는 얘기를 들었다 (contracted from the previous sentence, same meaning)

The Korean passive and causative conjugations pose many confusing aspects, and most Korean materials don't even teach this part properly. This grammar part may even be hard for some native Korean speakers. For example, 굽다 has two meanings and their conjugational forms are completely different.

  • 굽다1 : bend
  • 굽어지다 : to (naturally) become bent : (-어지다 is always passive. in this case, 굽다 follows the regular conjugation rule)
  • 굽히다 : to make something become bent , to bend something : (this -히 is causative)
  • 굽혀지다 : to become bent by someone : (causative -히 + passive -어지다)
  • 굽다2 : to bake
  • 구워지다 : to be baked : (-어지다 is always passive. in this case, 굽다 follows the ㅂ irregular conjugation rule)

In the example above, -히 is a causative suffix, but it can be either a passive suffix in many other verbs.

  • 먹다 : to eat
  • 먹히다 : to be eaten : (this -히 is passive)
  • 먹혀지다 : to be eaten : (passive -히 + passive -어지다. this is wrong as it is a double passive)
  • 먹이다 : to make/let someone eat , to feed : (this -이 is causative)
  • 먹여지다 : to be fed : (causative -이 + passive -어지다. this is correct but hardly ever used.)

In some cases, the passive and causative forms are morphologically identical.

  • 보다 : to see
  • 보이다1 : to be seen : (this -이 is passive)
  • 보여지다1 : to be seen : (passive -이 + passive -어지다, this usage is wrong as it is a double passive)
  • 보이다2 : to make/let someone see , to show : (this -이 is causative. to avoid confusion, 보여주다 is used in most cases)
  • 보여지다2 : to be shown : (causative -이 + passive -어지다)

Many verbs have two possible passive forms but only one of them is preferred in most cases. (the less preferred one might even sound unnatural) Some verbs, however, the two passive forms are equally preferred, either one is fine.

  • 믿다 : to believe
  • 믿기다 : to be believed : (this -기 is passive)
  • 믿어지다 : to be believed : (-어지다 is passive)
  • 믿겨지다 : to be believed : (passive -기 + passive -어지다. this is wrong as it is a double passive)
  • 믿게 하다 : to make/let someone believe something : (in this case, -게 하다 is the proper causative form)

There are some verbs that even most native Koreans fail to conjugate correctly.

  • 잊다 : to forget
  • 잊히다 : to be forgotten : (passive -히)
  • 잊어지다 : to be forgotten : (passive -어지다, this form is correct but hardly used)
  • 잊혀지다 : to be forgotten : (a double passive using both -히 and -어지다. this is wrong)
  • 잊게 하다 : to make/let someone forget something : (in this case, -게 하다 is the proper causative form)

Some verbs don't allow the passive suffixes at all. These exceptional verbs need special passive forms.

  • 죽다 : to die
  • 죽이다 : to make/let someone die , to kill : (causative -이)
  • 죽임을 당하다 : to be killed : (causative -이 + nominalization -ㅁ + passive -을 당하다)
  • 사망(死亡)하다 : to die : (Sino Korean equivalent)
  • 살해(殺害)하다 : to kill : (Sino Korean equivalent)
  • 살해(殺害)당하다 : to be killed : (Sino Korean equivalent)
  • 살해(殺害)되다 : to be killed : (Sino Korean equivalent)
  • 피살(被殺)되다 : to be killed : (Sino Korean equivalent)

묻다 has three meanings and each of them has different conjugational forms.

  • 묻다1 : to bury : (this verb follows the regular conjugation rule)
  • 묻히다1 : to be buried : (this -히 is passive)
  • 묻어지다 : to be buried : (passive -어지다. this form is not much used)
  • 묻혀지다1 : to be buried : (passive -히 + passive -어지다, this usage is wrong as it is a double passive)
  • 묻게 하다 : to make/let someone bury something : (causative form with -게 하다)
  • 묻다2 : to be smeared : (this verb follows the regular conjugation rule)
  • 묻히다2 : to make/let something become smeared, to smear : (this -히 is causative. note that the previous 묻히다1 is passive)
  • 묻혀지다2 : to become smeared with something by someone : (causative -히 + passive -어지다)
  • 묻다3 : to ask : (this verb does not have a passive form. theoretically, it should be 물어지다 in the passive form but this is not used. instead, 물음을 받다 would work as the passive form. 물음 is a noun form of 묻다(to ask), as the object suffix -을/-를 is only attached to nouns. However, 물음을 받다 sounds kind of uncommon. the most frequently used passive form for this verb would be 질문(質問)을 받다, the Sino Korean alternative. this 묻다3 verb follows the ㄷ irregular conjugation rule.)
  • 물어보게 하다 : to make/let someone ask something : (causative form with -게 하다. theoretically, it should be 묻게 하다 but this can be misunderstood as the 묻다1 verb.)

Adjectives can also become passive and causative verbs.

  • 낮다 : be low
  • 낮아지다 : to become low : (passive -아지다)
  • 낮추다 : to make/let something become low , to lower : (this -추 is causative)
  • 낮춰지다 : to become lowered by someone : (causative -추 + passive -어지다)
  • 높다 : be high
  • 높아지다 : to become high : (passive -아지다)
  • 높이다 : to make/let something become high : (this -이 is causative)
  • 높여지다 : passive form of 높이다 : (causative -이 + passive -어지다)

Some causative forms with the -우 suffix are inflected with the vowel ㅣ.

  • 자다 : to sleep
  • 재우다 : to make/let someone sleep : (자 + ㅣ + 우 + 다)
  • 재워지다 : passive form of 재우다 : (causative -우 + passive -어지다)
  • 서다 : to stand
  • 세우다 : to make/let something stand : (서 + ㅣ + 우 + 다)
  • 세워지다 : passive form of 세우다 : (causative -우 + passive -어지다)

When verbs have a -하다 (to do) ending, the conjugations are different from the rules above. Most Hanja words (Chinese loanwords) belong to this part. When the 하다 verbs have a monosyllabic stem, they tend to take the -어/-아지다 ending.
Note that the 하다 verb itself is irregular.
[하다 + -어/-아지다 → 하여지다 → 해지다]

  • 칠하다 : to paint
  • 칠해지다 (칠하여지다) : to be painted
  • 정하다 : to decide
  • 정해지다 (정하여지다) : to be decided

Note that there are many exceptions, this is not an established principle. For example, 변하다 (to change) has no passive form. 변하다 just can be "to change" or "to be changed" without conjugation. I don't know why because I didn't invent this language. On the other hand, a similar word 변질되다 (be changed) has no active form. It is only used in the passive form. The native Korean counterpart for "to change", 바꾸다 has a normal passive form 바뀌다. In short,

  • 변하다 : to change (active)
  • 변하다 : to be changed (passive)
  • 변질하다 : (not used in the active form)
  • 변질되다 : to be changed (passive)
  • 바꾸다 : to change (active)
  • 바뀌다 : to be changed (passive)

There are many irregular exceptions like this. You should memorize these things by practice.

When the 하다 verbs have a polysyllabic stem, they don't add the -어/-아지다 ending. Instead, the 하다 ending is changed to 되다 or 당하다 or 받다. (you should memorize what to use. most verbs allow one or two ways out of the three)

  • 결정하다 : to decide
  • 결정되다 : to be decided (Note : 결정하다 is a synonym of 정하다 above, the only difference is the 결, but they are different in the passive form)
  • 구타하다 : to beat up
  • 구타당하다 : to be beaten up (당하다 means "to suffer")
  • 지원하다 : to support
  • 지원받다 : to be supported (받다 means "to receive")

The causative form of 하다 is 시키다.

  • 실행하다 : to carry out
  • 실행시키다 : to make someone to carry out something
  • 실행하게 하다 : to make someone to carry out something

(Note : many 하다 verbs don't allow the 시키다 causative form. 하게 하다 can be applied universally)

Note that Korean adjectives can have the 하다 ending too, but the 하다 in adjectives is a different thing and doesn't mean "to do". The conjugation rules are also entirely different. They take the -어/-아지다 and -게 되다 forms. The 시키다 causative form is not used. This poses another difficulty because the 하다 verbs and adjectives look the same, so you can't determine if they are verbs or adjectives unless you look up a dictionary. You should first figure out if they are verbs or adjectives, then you can apply the correct conjugation rule.

  • 깨끗하다 : be clean (adjective)
  • 깨끗해지다 : to become clean (verb)
  • 깨끗하게 되다 : to become clean (verb)

(Note : adjectives don't count if the stem is monosyllabic or polysyllabic. it's always "하다 → 해지다" and "하다 → 하게 되다")

Note that 하게 하다 and 하게 되다 are different. 하게 하다 is a causative form for verbs, 하게 되다 is a passive form for adjectives. If verbs take 하게 되다, the meaning is slightly different. It's like "end up doing / get to do". Native Koreans are just naturally able to speak it without learning, just like the Americans can speak English without an effort. They are not even aware of this trickiness, they don't even know what's wrong with their own language. Consequently, most are clumsy at teaching their own language because they have never seriously studied their own language from scratch. For those who are not natively speaking Korean, it might be extremely tricky. In my opinion, as a native Korean speaker, this grammar part is extremely difficult. Probably the hardest grammar part in the Korean language. Not only hard to learn, but also hard to explain.

  • 결정하다 : to decide (verb)
  • 결정되다 : to be decided (verb)
  • 결정하게 하다 : to make someone to decide something (verb) : (the 시키다 causative form is not used for this verb)
  • 결정하게 되다 : to end up deciding something , to get to decide something (verb)
  • 익숙하다 : be(is) accustomed (adjective)
  • 익숙해지다 : to become accustomed (verb)
  • 익숙하게 되다 : to become accustomed (verb)
  • 결정해지다 (X) : (if you don't understand why this is wrong, read the explanation again.)
  • 익숙되다, 익숙당하다, 익숙받다 (X) : (if you don't understand why this is wrong, read the explanation again.)

In short, the conjugation rules for the passive and causative forms follow some patterns, but vary with individual verbs. (most passive verbs take one of -이, -히, -리, -기 or -어/-아지다 or -되다. most causative verbs take one of -이, -히, -리, -기, -우 ,-구, -추 or -시키다 or -게 하다). The four suffixes -이, -히, -리, -기 are particularly tricky as they could be either passive or causative (or sometimes both). If you come across a Korean word you don't know, with one of the four suffixes, you can't really determine whether it is passive or causative unless you look up a Korean dictionary, because those four suffixes arbitrarily work with individual verbs. (say, if you come across an English word you don't know, with "-ed" ending, you can soon figure out that it is a past tense suffix for a verb, but you can't determine the function of the four Korean suffixes without a Korean dictionary) Besides, when they have the -하다 ending, you have to figure out if they are verbs or adjectives, because verbs and adjectives follow different rules despite looking exactly the same things. That's why most Korean materials for foreigners overlook or skip or this grammar part. They (those who created the Korean materials for foreigners) often say "Passive form is not much used in Korean" or "Passive form is not as common as it is in English". The first argument is wrong. Passive form is very common in Korean in fact. The latter argument might be true in many cases but doubtful if the claim is based on any valid statistics. As previously shown, many active voice English expressions should be translated to the passive form in Korean, but it is often ignored. It seems like many Koreans aren't even aware that they are actually speaking in the passive forms. I have never seen someone explaining 믿기지(가) 않다 or 믿어지지(가) 않다 or 믿겨지지(가) 않다 as the passive form. Most people just explain it as "can't believe". That's how you end up thinking the passive form is not common in Korean without understanding the underlying grammar structure. Depending on the situation, the passive form in Korean could be even more common than the passive voice in English. This grammar part is very confusing even for native Korean speakers. Many Koreans are still using double passive words like 잊혀지다, because they misunderstood the -히 suffix as causative. (Try to imagine a word like "forgottened" which has an extra "-ed" suffix. That's what's called the double passive in Korean. In English, somehow the past participles are used for the passive voice but in Korean, past tense has nothing to do with the passive form. They are morphologically completely different.) I think they (those who created the Korean materials for foreigners) are just avoiding some nettlesome parts. Who would want to make their customers freaked out? In practice, each form of every verb should be memorized.

이 Passive Verbs (Most verbs in this category end in ㅎ or a vowel)
Active verb Passive verb Examples
놓다 (to lay, to put, to build) 놓이다 (to be on, to be placed, to be built)
  • Active: 식탁에 그릇들을 놓았다 (I put dishes on the table).
  • Passive: 식탁에 그릇들이 놓였다 (Dishes were put on the table).
바꾸다 (to change) 바뀌다 (to be changed)
  • Active: 결정을 바꾸었다 (I changed the decision).
  • Passive: 결정이 바뀌었다 (The decision was changed).
보다 (to see) 보이다 (to be seen)
  • Active: 나는 그 외계인을 보았다 (I saw the alien).
  • Passive: 그 외계인이 보였다. (The alien was seen (to me)).
쓰다 (to use, to write) 쓰이다 (to be used, to be written)
  • Active:그 책은 내 친구가 썼다 (My friend wrote that book).
  • Passive:그 책은 내 친구에 의해 쓰였다 (That book was written by my friend).
쌓다 (to pile up, to stack) 쌓이다 (to be piled up, to be stacked up)
  • Active: 상자를 쌓았다 (I stacked boxes up).
  • Passive: 상자가 쌓였다 (Boxes were stacked up).
차다 - to dump someone 차이다 - to be dumped
  • Active: 내가 여자친구를 찼다 (I dumped my girlfriend).
  • Passive: 내 여자친구가 나에게 차였다 (My girlfriend was dumped by me).
히 Passive Verbs (Most verbs in this category end in a ㅂ,ㅈ,ㄷ or ㄱ)
Active verb Passive verb Examples
꽂다 (to put in, to stick in) 꽂히다 (to be stuck in)
  • Active: 꽃을 꽃병에 꽂았다 (I put flowers in a vase).
  • Passive: 꽃이 꽃병에 꽂혔다 (Flowers were put in a vase).
닫다 (to close, to shut) 닫히다 (to be closed, to be shut)
  • Active: 문을 닫았다 (I closed the door).
  • Passive: 문이 닫혔다 (The door was closed).
읽다 (to read) 읽히다 (to be read)
  • Active:책을 읽었다 (I read a book).
  • Passive: 책이 읽혔다 (The book was read by someone).
막다 (to block, to clog) 막히다 (to be blocked, to be conjested, to be clogged up)
  • Active: 입구를 막았다 (I blocked the entrance).
  • Passive: 입구가 막혔다 (The entrance was blocked).
먹다 (to eat) 먹히다 (to be eaten)
  • Active: 빵을 먹는다 (I eat bread).
  • Passive: 빵이 먹혔다 (The bread was eaten).
묻다 (to bury) 묻히다 (to be buried)
  • Active: 땅에 관을 묻었다 (I buried the coffin under the ground).
  • Passive: 땅에 관이 묻혔다 (The coffin was buried under the ground).
뽑다 (to pluck, to pull off) 뽑히다 (to be plucked, to be pulled off)
  • Active: 잡초를 뽑는다 (I pluck the weeds out).
  • Passive: 잡초가 뽑혔다 (The weeds were plucked out).
잡다 (to catch) 잡히다 (to be caught)
  • Active: 경찰이 범죄자를 잡았다 (the police caught the criminal).
  • Passive: 범죄자가 경찰에게 잡혔다 (the criminal was caught by the police).
리 Passive Verbs (Most verbs in this category are irregular ㄷ verbs or end with ㄹ)
Active verb Passive verb Examples
걸다 (to hang) 걸리다 (to be hung)
  • Active: 그림을 벽에 걸었다 (I hung a picture on the wall).
  • Passive: 그림이 벽에 걸렸다 (The picture was hung on the wall).
듣다 (to hear) 들리다 (to be heard)
  • Active:노래를 들었다 (I heard the song).
  • Passive: 노래가 들렸다 (The song was heard).
물다 (to bite) 물리다 (to be bitten)
  • Active: 개가 나를 물었다 (the dog bit me).
  • Passive: 나는 개한테 물렸다 (I was bitten by the dog).
열다 (to open) 열리다 (to be open)
  • Active:창문을 열었다 (I open the window).
  • Passive: 창문이 열렸다 (The window was open).
팔다 (to sell) 팔리다 (to be sold)
  • Active:나는 장난감을 판다 (I sell the toys).
  • Passive: 장난감이 팔렸다 (The toys were sold).
풀다 (to untie, to solve) 풀리다 (to get untied, to be solved )
  • Active:문제를 풀었다 (I solve the problem).
  • Passive: 문제가 풀렸다 (The problem was solved).
자르다 (to cut) 잘리다 (to be cut)
  • Active:종이를 잘랐다 (I cut the paper).
  • Passive: 종이가 잘렸다 (The paper was cut).
기 Passive Verbs (Most verbs in this category end with ㄴ (ㄶ), ㅅ and ㅁ)
Active verb Passive verb Examples
끊다 (to cut off, to sever) 끊기다 (to be cut off, to be severed)
  • Active: 줄을 끊었다 (I cut the rope).
  • Passive: 줄이 끊겼다 (The rope was cut).
빼앗다 (to take, to steal) 빼앗기다 (to be taken, to be stolen)
  • Active: 돈을 빼앗았다 (I stole someone's money).
  • Passive: 돈을 빼앗겼다 (My money was stolen by someone).
안다 (to hold, to embrace) 안기다 (to be held, to be embraced)
  • Active: 아기를 품에 안았다 (I held baby in my arms).
  • Passive: 아기가 품에 안겼다 (The baby is in my arms).
쫓다 (to chase) 쫓기다 (to be chased)
  • Active:경찰이 도둑을 쫓는다 (A policeman chases robbery).
  • Passive: 도둑이 경찰에 쫓긴다(A robbery is chased by policeman).
잠그다 (to lock) 잠기다 (to be locked)
  • Active:문을 잠갔다(잠그었다) (I locked the door). ☞ 잠그었다 is commonly contracted to 잠궜다 but this is grammatically incorrect. 잠그다 follows the 으 irregular conjugation rule so the correct contracted form is 잠갔다.
  • Passive: 문이 잠겼다(잠기었다) (The door was locked).

See also