Modification in English can be restrictive or not.

In the sentence “This is a white grape, whose color is green.”, for example, “whose color is greennon-restrictively modifies “a white grape,” providing extra inessential information. We’re not talking about some kind of oddly-green white grapes here. We’re talking about white grapes, with a sidenote saying that white grapes are inherently green.

In the sentence “I got an apple that is green.”, on the other hand, “that is greenrestrictively modifies “an apple,” providing essential information to specify it. Apples are not necessarily green. Here we can see the modification restricted the “apple” to just mean “a green apple.”

How are they, restrictive and non-restrictive modification, phrased in the Korean language?

  • 1
    In English, rather than ", which" and "which", it's preferable to use ", which" and "that". Using only a comma can make it easy to miss the distinction. Jan 22 at 1:31

Restrictive and non-restrictive modification in Korean

The Korean language does not have non-restrictive modification

Unfortunately, there is practically no non-restrictive modification in Korean grammar, which is disappointing even though I'm a native Korean. Whenever I experience this lack while I'm writing in Korean, it reminds me of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which supposes that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition.

Restrictive modification in Korean

Modification in Korean tends to be interpreted as restrictive. And actually there's no grammatical support for distinguishing whether modification is restrictive or not. Because of it, translating English restrictive modification including modification done by relative pronouns, such as which, into Korean, is relatively easy. Further, usually, the result would be natural, stable and comprehensible.

[Original] Clever birds can eat the food, and birds that are not clever cannot (eat the food).

[Translated] 영리한 새들은 그 모이를 먹을 수 있고, 영리하지 않은 새들은 그 모이를 먹을 수 없다.

[Original] A picture which decorates a room.

[Translated] 방을 장식하는 그림.

Non-restrictive modification in Korean

As the Korean language has no grammatical support for denoting modification as non-restrictive, you need to do one of the tricks:

  • Trick #1: modify, and hope that readers would, based on their common sense, understand it as non-restrictive.
  • Trick #2: split into two separate sentences and link them with a conjunctive.
  • Trick #3: modify, and put a pause (a comma) in-between, laying stress on the modificand. Grammatically, the comma does nothing, but rhetorically, it suggests that it is a non-restrictive modification.

Trick #1 (natural yet possibly misleading)

For non-restrictive modification, if the extra information you provide to describe something by modifying it, is obvious for your readers/audience so that they can easily figure out that the information is description for the thing, simply modify it.

[Original] A crow, which is clever, is good at solving puzzles.

[Translated] 영리한 까마귀는 퍼즐을 잘 푼다.

In this way, most of them understand it as:

  • Crow → Clever
  • Crow → Good at solving puzzles

since it is common sense that a crow is clever. However, someone could nitpick at it:

그러면 영리하지 않은 까마귀는 퍼즐을 푸는 일을 못할 수도 있겠네, 그렇지?

Then a crow which is not clever might be not good at solving puzzles, right?

, because it can be grammatically interpreted as:

  • Clever Crow → Good at solving puzzles

, too.

Trick #2 (unmistakable yet verbose.)

In this way, the results would not cause misunderstanding at all, but you have to make two separate sentences/clauses: one for describing the concept, one for the other. In a sentence describes a concept of something, its subject tends to be singular; but you can also use a plural form.

[Original] Birds, which are beautiful, eat food.

[Translated] 새는(새들은) 아름답다. 새들은 모이를 먹는다.

[Directly translated] A bird is (Birds are) beautiful. Birds eat food.

I think it's somewhat robotic. Isn't it? It would be great for some, and would not that good for some others. Some Koreans who translate English sentences (school students, etc.) avoid this by concatenating them with conjunctive ending(연결 어미[連結語尾])s, such as -ㄴ데, -는데, and -고, which are similar to conjunctive particles.


(‘이다’의 어간, 받침 없는 형용사 어간, ‘’ 받침인 형용사 어간 또는 어미 ‘-으시-’, ‘-사오-’ 따위 뒤에 붙어) 뒤 절에서 어떤 일을 설명하거나 묻거나 시키거나 제안하기 위하여 그 대상과 상관되는 상황을 미리 말할 때에 쓰는 연결 어미.

A conjunctive ending(연결 어미[連結語尾]) for providing background information of something in order to explain, question, order, or suggest something regarding it in the latter clause. (It follows ‘이다’'s stem(어간[語幹]), adjectives' stem(어간[語幹])s which don't have a Batchim (받침), adjectives' stems whose Batchim (받침) is ‘’, ending (어미[語尾])-으시-’, or ending (어미[語尾])-사오-’.)


(‘있다’, ‘없다’, ‘계시다’의 어간, 동사 어간 또는 어미 ‘-으시-’, ‘-었-’, ‘-겠-’ 뒤에 붙어) 뒤 절에서 어떤 일을 설명하거나 묻거나 시키거나 제안하기 위하여 그 대상과 상관되는 상황을 미리 말할 때에 쓰는 연결 어미.

Same as -ㄴ데. (Except that it follows ‘있다’'s stem (어간[語幹]), ‘없다’'s stem (어간[語幹]), ‘계시다’'s stem (어간[語幹]), verbs' stem(어간[語幹])s, ending (어미[語尾])-으시-’, ending (어미[語尾])-었-’ or ending (어미[語尾])-겠-’.)

[Original] He tells me with a surprised look that, in Soviet Russia, grain eat pigeons, which I already know.

[Translated] 그는 놀란 표정으로 내게 러시아에서는 곡물이 비둘기를 먹는다고 말하는데, 나는 이미 알고 있다.

However, using -ㄴ데 and -는데 is also unnatural and inappropriate if the former clause does not support the latter one.

[Original] Birds, which are beautiful, eat food.

[Translated] 새는(새들은) 아름다운데, (새들은) 모이를 먹는다.

[Directly translated] A bird is (Birds are) beautiful; however, (birds) eat food.

If I see sentences like above, I'd say:

새가 아름다운 거랑 모이 먹는 것이 대체 무슨 상관이 있다는 거야?

Yes, birds eat food, but why did you mention that birds are beautiful? There's no connection between them!

Then, try -고, which is similar to and in English.


(‘이다’의 어간, 용언의 어간 또는 어미 ‘-으리-’, ‘-더-’를 제외한 다른 어미 뒤에 붙어) 두 가지 이상의 사실을 대등하게 벌여 놓는 연결 어미.

A conjunctive ending(연결 어미[連結語尾]) for enumerating two or more facts equally. (It follows ‘이다’'s stem (어간[語幹]), stem(어간[語幹])s of verbs and adjectives (용언[用言]), or ending(어미[語尾])s excepting ‘-으리-’ and ‘-더-’.)

[Original] Birds, which are beautiful, eat food.

[Translated] 새들은 아름답고, 모이를 먹는다.

[Directly translated] Birds are beautiful, and eat food.

I think this is the most natural for this sentence.

Trick #3

You can imply non-restrictive modification by emphasizing the modificands. This is effective for casual writing, such as writing novels (especially light novels), but not appropriate for academic or formal writings. It also works in verbal conversation, but they may not understand the purpose of your emphasis.

Emphasizing in speech (verbal conversation)

Air quotes gesture would be great for this, but Koreans don't use it. If you use it in Korea, most of Koreans would laugh at you.I used once and they laughed…….

  • Speaking relatively louder when you say what you want to emphasize.
  • Speaking relatively slowly when you say what you want to emphasize.
  • Taking a break before saying what you want to emphasize.
Emphasizing in writing

My first time playing Closers.

My first time playing Closers (클로저스). Taken on July 30, 2016.

[Original] 당신은…… 설득이 통하지 않는, ‘무기’니까.

[Translated] Because……, you are a “weapon”, which never be persuaded.


Written on November 12-14 of 2017 and January 21 of 2021.

  • 1
    새들은 아름다우며 모이를 먹는다 i guess directly translates the 으며 to while yet might lend itself to which. ...no source, just figuring. Nov 14 '17 at 12:24

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