~고 있다 VS ~어/아/여 있다 – Important differences and uses

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(Estimated reading time: 7 minutes)

Most Korean learners wouldn’t able to tell you the difference (myself included!) but there are very distinct differences and situations where only either can be used.

In this blog post, we’ll explore in-depth how to use ~고 있다 and ~어/아/여 있다 differently and accurately. I did some research and my Korean teacher at Daehan explained the important differences.

Be sure to leave comments if you have anything to add/clarify!

Important differences and uses

1a. ~고 있다 is used to express a subject carrying out a (progressive) action (active).

The most common way of understanding ~고 있다 is that it is attached to any non-descriptive action verb to indicate that is an ongoing activity/action.

However, more importantly, it must be noted that the action is always an active one and not passive.

In other words, the subject must be doing the action verb and not undergoing the action verb.

For example, “I am eating the meal” instead of “The meal is being eaten by me”.

Examples:

먹고 있다 = (a subject is) eating (an object)

지금은 저는 점심을 먹고 있어요. (O)
지금은 저는 점심을 먹어 있어요. (X)
I am eating my lunch meal right now/(I am) having my lunch right now.

읽고 있다 = (a subject is) reading (an object)

저는 책을 읽고 있어요. (O)
저는 책을 읽어 있어요. (X)
I am reading a book.

쓰고 있다 = (a subject is) writing (an object)

선생님은 칠판에서 글을 쓰고 있어요. (O)
선생님은 칠판에서 글을 써 있어요. (X)
The teacher is writing on the whiteboard.

보고 있다 = (a subject is) looking at/watching (an object)

아버지는 텔레비전을 보고 있어요. (O)
아버지는 텔레비전을 봐 있어요. (X)
Father is looking at/watching the television.

하고 있다 = (a subject is) doing (an object)

학생들은 핸드폰 게임을 하고 있어요. (O)
학생들은 핸드폰 게임을 해 있어요. (X)
The students are playing handphone games.

1b. ~고 있다 is almost always used to express how a subject is acting on an object.

Because ~고 있다 is attached to an action verb and it’s always active, the action must be acted on something.

There are some cases where the object is omitted if it’s something self-explanatory and a matter of fact, for example, “eating”.

Technically, no one can be just carrying out the action of “eating” without food in the sentence.

In that case, we don’t have to explicitly say, “I am eating my meal” and just say, “I am eating” instead.

Examples:

먹고 있다 = (a subject is) eating (an object)

지금은 저는 (점심을) 먹고 있어요. 이따가 전화할게요.
I am eating my lunch meal right now/(I am) having my lunch right now. I will call you later/I will give you a call later.

읽고 있다 = (a subject is) reading (an object)

저는 책을 읽고 있어요. 너무 재미있어요.
I am reading a book. It’s really interesting.

쓰고 있다 = (a subject is) writing (an object)

선생님은 칠판에서 글을 쓰고 있어요. 집중하세요.
The teacher is writing on the whiteboard. Please focus.

보고 있다 = (a subject is) looking at/watching (an object)

아버지는 텔레비전을 보고 있어요. ‘개그 콘서트’가 아주 웃겨서 좋아해요
Father is looking at/watching the television. ‘Gag Concert’ is very funny so (father) likes it.

하고 있다 = (a subject is) doing (an object)

쉬는 시간이라서 학생들은 핸드폰 게임을 하고 있어요.
Because it’s break time, the students are playing handphone games.

2a. ~어/아/여 있다 is used to express a state of being after an action is completed (passive).

This point can be understood by looking at the subject of a clause/sentence (for example, a person) doing an action (lying down on a bed) and staying in that state of being after the action (lying down and stay laid down on the bed).

In this sense, we want to express how the person has already executed the action (lying down on the bed) and is still laid down on the bed, which is considered a passive state (laid down).

Examples:

열려 있다 – to be (left) open/in the state of being/staying open
열고 있다 – (the action of) opening (something)

아까 찬문은 열려 있었어요.
Just now, the window was left open.
아까 (저는) 찬문을 열고 있었어요.
Just now, I was opening the window.

누워 있다 – to be laid down/in the state of being/staying laid down
눕고 있다 – (the action of) lying down

아이는 (침대에) 누워 있어요.
The baby is lying down (on the bed)/The baby is (left on the bed and in the state of being/staying) laid down.
아이는 (침대에) 눕고 있어요.
The baby is (carrying out the action of) lying down (on the bed).

끓여 있다 – to be boiling/in the state of being/staying boiled
끓고 있다 – (the action of) boiling (something)

물은 끓여 있었어.
The water is (in the state of) boiling/is boiled (and staying boiled).
(나는) 물을 끓고 있었어.
I am (carrying out the action of) boiling the water.

앉아 있다 – to be seated/in the state of being/staying seated
앉고 있다 – (the action of) sitting

학생들은 (의자에) 앉아 있어요.
The students are seated (on the chairs).
학생들은 (의자에) 앉고 있어요.
The students are (carrying out the action of) sitting down (on the chairs)

걸려 있다 – to be hung/in the state of being/staying hung
걸고 있다 – (the action of) hanging (something)

그림은 (벽에) 걸려 있어요.
The picture is (in the state of being/staying) hung/hanging (on the wall).
(저는) 그림을 (벽에) 걸고 있어요.
I am (carrying out the action of) hanging the picture (on the wall).

2b. ~어/아/여 있다 will always be used if the non-descriptive verb (attached to a subject) is not acting on an object.

In other words, if there is only one subject doing an action in a particular clause/sentence, you cannot use ~고 있다 and must always use ~어/아/여 있다.

Remember that ~고 있다 is attached to active verbs while ~어/아/여 있다 is used to express a passive state of being (refer to points 1a and 2a).

Examples:

열려 있다 – to be (left) open/in the state of being/staying open

아까 찬문은 열려 있었어요. 비가 올까봐 빨리 집으로 돌아갈텐데. (O)
아까 찬문은 열고 있었어요. 비가 올까봐 빨리 집으로 돌아갈텐데. (X)
Just now, the window was left open. I’m afraid it might rain so I had better return home quickly.

누워 있다 – to be laid down/in the state of being/staying laid down

아이는 (침대에) 누워 있어요. 나를 바라보는 모습이 아주 귀여워요. (O)
아이는 (침대에) 눕고 있어요. 나를 바라보는 모습이 아주 귀여워요. (X)
The baby is lying down (on the bed)/The baby is (left on the bed and in the state of being/staying) laid down. The way she looks at me is very cute.

끓여 있다 – to be boiling/in the state of being/staying boiled

물은 끓여 있었어. 지금 라면을 물에 넣으면 돼. (O)
물은 끓고 있었어. 지금 라면을 물에 넣으면 돼. (X)
The water is (in the state of) boiling/is boiled (and staying boiled). You can place the ramyeon in the water now.

앉아 있다 – to be seated/in the state of being/staying seated

학생들은 (의자에) 앉아 있어요. 수업을 곧 진행할게요. (O)
학생들은 (의자에) 앉고 있어요. 수업을 곧 진행할게요. (X)
The students are seated (on the chairs). I’ll start the lesson in a bit.

걸려 있다 – to be hung/in the state of being/staying hung

그림은 (벽에) 분명히 걸려 있었어요. 마술사가 어떻게 그림을 사라지게 했나요? (O)
그림은 (벽에) 분명히 걸고 있었어요. 마술사가 어떻게 그림을 사라지게 했나요? (X)
The picture was clearly (in the state of being/staying) hung/hanging (on the wall). How did the magician make the picture disappear?

Summary

~고 있다

  • used to express a subject carrying out a (progressive) action (active)
  • almost always used to express how a subject is acting on an object

~어/아/여 있다

  • used to express a state of being after an action is completed (passive)
  • always be used if the non-descriptive verb (attached to a subject) is not acting on an object

Hope you’ve understood (more or less, at least, I hope…)! If not, please leave comments below and we can discuss about it!

References

FunKorean4U

Korean Wiki Project

Reddit

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