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I just learned this sentence, however it translates to ‘he’s never happy’. Is this translation accurate? Because I thought this sentence meant ‘he’s never unhappy’. Thank you

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  • That sentence does not sound Korean. You should say "그는 절대 행복하지 않아요." This is because you are talking about others not about yourself.
    – Klmo
    Jun 22 '19 at 5:49
  • Another thing is that Koreans usually don't use 그 as a subject when talking about a person verbally. Technically, 그 is a word meaning he (him, his), she (her), it (its), the, and that (those), although it is usually regarded as he or him because of the influence of English. You should use 그 남자 (that/the guy/man), 그 여자 (that/the lady/woman), or her/his name, instead of 그.
    – Klmo
    Jun 22 '19 at 6:19
  • this sounds correct but means many two things. 1. his personality 2. situation (he is absolutely not happy (with his salary) for example
    – Sung
    Jun 22 '19 at 8:04
  • @Sung Not at all. How can one knows others' feelings? Did you consider the difference between 행복하다 and 행복해하다?
    – Klmo
    Jun 22 '19 at 8:59
  • @Klmo I am a native Korean though. Think about when someone asks his wife if he is happy with his new job, his wife could answer like that. It would be better if she said 그는 절대 만족하지 않아요.
    – Sung
    Jun 22 '19 at 9:08
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in this sentence, 절대 means 'absolutely' not 'never'.

So he is absolutely not happy

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절대 is mostly used with a negation (않아요, 안, ..할 리 없어, etc.) - combined, they mean "never". It's similar to English words like "anything" (e.g., "I did not find anything.")

Also, there's a subtle difference between "그는 절대 행복하지 않아요" and "He's never happy." The English sentence is frequently understood as talking about his personal quality: that is, he is the kind of person who is hard to please. Consider this example:

I prepared everything as he demanded, including the ridiculous cover photo, but of course he is never happy.

On the other hand, the Korean sentence has no such meaning. It simply states that you are utterly confident that he is not happy (now).

Edit: Sometimes 절대 is used with a non-negative expression, but apparently there are disagreements on where that is allowed. See the comments below. (It probably deserves another question.)

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  • One thing I have to point out is that 절대 is used with non-negative words as well. Consider 따르다 as in "우리에게는 절대 따를 명령이 있다" and 필요하다 as in "아이에게는 관심이 절대 필요하다." 절대 might equal "ever" as in "never"; however, I would say that 절대 is more like "in any case/situation/circumstances."
    – Klmo
    Jun 22 '19 at 6:51
  • @Kimo both sentences sound awkward. 절대 should be 절대적으로 in your sentences.
    – Sung
    Jun 22 '19 at 7:56
  • @Klmo 우리에게는 절대적으로 따를 명령이 있다 is correct 아이에게는 관심이 절대적으로 필요하다 is correct
    – Sung
    Jun 22 '19 at 9:17
  • 1
    @Klmo Sure we can take it up to National Institute of Korean Language, but let's admit, we all know that they frequently hold bone-headed opinions (like their years-long crusade against 짜장면 which thankfully ended recently, or transcribing San Jose, CA as 새너제이). They aren't, and don't deserve to be, the final authority on whether an expression is correct or not.
    – jick
    Jun 22 '19 at 17:20
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    @Klmo If someone wants to rely on NIKL's opinions, I don't want to fight them - it's their choice after all. But I strongly disagree that people have to rely on NIKL. English doesn't even have such an authority, and it is doing just fine. Also, anybody who studied linguistics in the past 80 years or so should know that statements like "The majority of Koreans are using our language wrong!" just doesn't make any sense, but sadly that's the same kind of sentiment (if not the exact wording) strongly encouraged by the authorities and "experts" sitting in NIKL.
    – jick
    Jun 24 '19 at 22:03
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There are a wide variety of points to mention. After all the discussions, or rather one-sided conversations in written form, I could not help posting this long answer.


I am deeply suspicious of that particular declarative sentence which I believe you brought from one among flashcards dealing with interpersonal communication. In everyday conversation, the sentence is logically incorrect. This was why I stated as a comment, "That sentence does not sound Korean," which was how it seemed to me when I read it.

If 그 남자 is used instead of 그, the correct sentence is "그 남자는 절대 행복하지 않아요." This is almost the same in meaning as "그 남자는 절대 기뻐하지 않아요1." (The pronoun, 그, is rarely used in spoken language2. It is better to avoid using 그 as a pronoun when you converse with others.)

행복해하다 consists of 행복하- (행복하다) and -어하다 (하다 as an auxiliary verb). Unlike the adjective (행복하다), it acts as a verb3, which suggests that a psychological verb must be used in that kind of sentence. You should consider this restriction when you declaratively describe the second and third persons' emotions and mental states using adjectives. Such adjectives are called 심리 형용사4 (psychological adjectives). Some people sometimes mistake 행복하다 for a verb. Somewhat careless with prescriptive grammar, they use "행복하세요!" as if it were correct. In this regard, it is not surprising that some Koreans do not notice the difference in usage between psychological adjectives and verbs.

I do not believe that language learners must know this as well, but there is an exception in literature. When the narrator is omniscient and describes characters' feelings using the adjectives, the attachment of "-어하다" is not a must. The following are some examples:

  • 그는 누가 와도 기쁘지 않다.
  • 그는 친구의 죽음이 한없이 슬펐다.
  • 그는 잃어버린 물건을 찾아서 기뻤다.

In that unusual case, the sentence you brought here is considered correct. Once again, this is the wrong way to describe others declaratively in everyday life.

Now, let me change your question a bit: "Is '그 남자는 절대 행복해하지 않아요' equal in meaning to 'He's never happy.'?"

I would quote here several English sentences including never happy.

  • No matter what I do, she's never happy. Ever since I was little, and for as long as I can remember, she's never satisfied with anything I do.
  • "She's never happy when I'm around," she says. "I don't think she likes me very much."
  • I've tried to please her in every way I can, but she's never happy.
  • He's never happy, he's never satisfied, he's just a...
  • He's never happy with anything I make for supper, so I should tell you that you probably don't have anything that will work for me.
  • He's never happy with what he's doing.

In these sentences, "she/he" never has the state of being happy under the conditions described. And for the first example, the implication is that "she" will be displeased regardless of "your" actions5. Thus, "He's never happy," describes "his" unchanging mental state or personality.

According to Korean dictionaries, 절대 means 어떠한 경우에도 반드시 or 어떤 일이 있더라도. The former meaning is like "assuredly in any case" or "assuredly under any circumstances/conditions"; the latter is literally translated as "whatever happens" (= "in any case"). Please note that 절대 is used with nonnegative and negative words (but more frequently with negative words)6. As you can see, never is not the same as 절대.

Strange as it may sound, it is good to know that as a verb, 행복해하다 indirectly describes someone's happiness because it indicates her/his behavior that is showing her/his happiness. The key logic is based on the belief that you can never know others' feelings without guesses or observations because you are not God or omniscient7.

I would conclude that "He's never happy," is very similar in meaning to "그 남자는 절대 행복해하지 않아요."


It seems to me that you are learning Korean from this page. Using flawed flashcards may have a negative influence on you. I have found one of the flashcards there translates 절대 as never; however, 절대 is not identical with never. The following are some other problematic items I have seen there:

  • "이것은 내 개예요" (This is my dog): It is better to say "이 개가 제 개예요." Although 내 개 itself is correct, "내 개예요." sounds casual as if one is talking to someone who she/he loves; "제 개예요." should be said in a lot of situations. Furthermore, the pronoun, 이것, sounds awkward here because 개 is an animal.
  • "십분 전 두시예요" (It's ten to two): "두 시 (되기) 십 분 전이에요" is correct. Please note the order and spacing.
  • "팬티" (pants): Underpants are called 팬티, but trousers are 바지. Although the English text is written in British English, learners may misunderstand that Korean word.

I would pose the following questions to those who disagree with my post:

  • Have you ever thought about 심리 형용사?
  • Have you considered the differences between 동사 and 형용사?
  • Do you have any external references that support your thoughts against mine?
  • What am I missing if you believe I am wrong?

Footnotes:

  1. I asked the National Institute of Korean Language how psychological adjectives must be used in conversation and they agreed with me.
  2. Based on KKMA's statistics.
  3. 기뻐하다 is a verb, so it is reasonable to regard 행복해하다 as a verb.
  4. This Korean article explains how psychological adjectives are used.
  5. This is not only my perception.
  6. A reference (in Korean).
  7. A book reference (in Korean).

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