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I thought I understood to some extent how the topic marking particle (는/은) worked, but I came across these two examples and now it's confused me again.

1.오늘만 일찍 왔어요 2.오늘은 일찍 왔어요

The way I translated it in my head was :

1.I only came here early today (today I came early, other days I don't come early)

2.As for today, I came here early (on other days I didn't come early)

Do they mean exactly the same thing or is there a subtle difference? I assume there is, but I can't figure it out.

As ever thank you!

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  • They are similar, but the former means on most other days I don't come early, while the latter means usually I don't come early. So if you very rarely come early (so you come early only for some special reason), you should use 만, and if coming early is unusual but not super rare, you should use 은. But since the rarity of such events is subjective, people don't care much about which one you use.
    – Absol
    Apr 1 at 14:34
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  • "오늘은 일찍 왔어요" is similar to "Today I came early."

    You probably wouldn't say that if you come early every day: the sentence implies that it's something worth talking about.[1] At the same time, it doesn't emphasize anything being unusual. (For example, maybe today I came early because it's Tuesday and I come early every Tuesday.)

  • "오늘만 일찍 왔어요" is similar to "It's only today that I came early."

    The -만 makes it very explicit that it's only today that this happened - that's what you want to emphasize.

We can even have a conversation using both:

A: 오늘은 길이 안 막혀서 일찍 왔어요. = Today there was no traffic, so I arrived early.

B: 처음으로 안 늦은 건가요? = Is this the first time you weren't late?

A: 에이, 오늘만 일찍 온 건 아니에요. = Well, it's not only today that I was early!

[1] In the Korean sentence, the contrast is a bit more explicit: in English, for example, you could say "Today I came early, just like every other day," but in Korean you will have to say 오늘도 instead of 오늘은. ("맨날 그러던 것처럼 오늘도 일찍 왔어요.")

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