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How do I distinguish between auxiliary verbs and light verbs in Korean? And, is there a difference between the definition of these two between English and Korean?

  • Could you tell me what is light verb in Korean? I can't find it on google. – LegenDUST Jun 6 '19 at 5:05
  • 경동사구조 = light verb construction – Michaelyus Jun 6 '19 at 11:18
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경동사 is the literal translation of "light verb," so the definitions are originally the same. In Korea, this term seems to be used among a few researchers or experts. Some of them have used the term, 기능동사, instead.

In a Korean dictionary, 하다 is classified into five parts: 동사 (a verb), 형용사 (an adjective), 보조 동사 (an auxiliary verb), 보조 형용사 (an auxiliary adjective), and 접미사 (a verbizing/adjectivizing suffix).

According to the dictionary, 하다 as in 생각하다 and 머리하다 is a suffix that verbizes the preceding word, and 하다 as in 생각을 하다 and 머리를 하다 is a verb that constructs a predicate.

Considering studies including this one, however, we may say that 하다 is a light verb in a few cases.

  • 철수가 옛일을 생각한다. (생각하다)
  • 철수가 옛일을 생각을 한다. (생각을 하다)

옛일 means what happened in the past, and 생각 means a thought (thoughts). Semantically, 옛일 is an object of 생각 not of 하다. Omitting 한다 from these sentences would not significantly obscure what they mean, although it leaves incomplete statements without details such as the tense, sentence type, and style.

It seems to me that the structure of a predicate and the nature of a noun have been criteria to determine whether 하다 is a light verb. Here are other sentences, the two of which (#4 and #5) are similar in structure to the previous ones.

  1. 영희가 공부한다. (공부하다)
  2. 영희가 공부를 한다. (공부를 하다)
  3. 영희가 영어 공부를 한다. (공부를 하다)
  4. 영희가 영어를 공부한다. (공부하다)
  5. 영희가 영어를 공부를 한다. (공부를 하다)

There is no consensus on this case: Some think that 하다 is a light verb in all the five considering that 공부 is an "action" noun that has the core meaning of each predicate; others believe that it is a light verb only in #4 and #5 because the noun (공부) placed right before it needs to show a link in meaning with a nominal (영어) rather than with it (하다) [Note: 영어를 하다 has a totally different meaning from 공부를 하다 and 영어를 공부하다]. This is maybe because Koreans (including me) have unclear understanding of the term, "light verb," and because the two languages are so dissimilar that Koreans cannot directly apply an English term to a Korean sentence. Anyway, I would wrap up with one more example.

  • 영희가 머리한다. (머리하다)
  • 영희가 머리를 한다. (머리를 하다)

머리 means hair (hairs) or a head (heads). In these two sentences, no one would deny that 하다 is a (heavy) verb. Omitting 한다 would confuse readers/listeners as the meaning of 머리 is irrelevant to an action, experience, or state.


English auxiliary verbs are usually called 조동사, but when it comes to the Korean language, the term, 보조 용언 is generally used by Koreans. 보조 용언 comprises 보조 동사 and 보조 형용사. The definitions of 조동사 and 보조 동사 are the same; however, English auxiliary verbs and 보조 용언 are different in usage. For example, English auxiliary verbs come before main verbs; 보조 용언 come after 본용언 (main verbs/adjectives).

보조 동사 '하다' is used as follows:

  • 우리가 방을 깨끗하게 하자. (깨끗하다 + -게 하다)
  • 우리가 방을 청소했으면 한다. (청소하다 + -었으면 하다)
  • 방이 깨끗했으면 한다. (깨끗하다 + -었으면 하다)
  • 방이 깨끗해야 한다. (깨끗하다 + -어야 하다)
  • 우리가 방을 청소해야 한다. (청소하다 + -어야 하다)
  • 우리가 방을 청소하기는 한다. (청소하다 + -기는 하다)
  • 비도 내리고 하니 책을 읽자. (오다 + -고 하니)
  • 봄에는 비가 가끔 내리곤 한다. (오다 + -곤 하다)
  • 이별에 슬퍼하지 마라. (슬프다 + -어하다)
  • 아이가 책을 읽고 싶어 한다. (싶다 + -어 하다)

In a dictionary, you will find other constructions as well. In the parentheses, the main verbs/adjectives are provided before the symbol, "+." As can be seen, all these sentences have specific forms linking 본용언 with 보조 동사. In this manner, a combination of 본용언 and 보조 용언 acts as a verb/adjective, and 보조 용언 is conjugated.


Although there are no clear criteria for 경동사, it is clear that 보조 용언 always follow 본용언 with particular linking forms whereas 경동사 needs a noun that precedes it.

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