Previously I thought there is no structural difference between adjectives and verbs in Korean, since all Korean words which are translated as adjectives into English are actually verbs which express the quality of being described by a given English adjective, and are conjugated almost the same as action verbs. Almost.

However, I was told that the functional suffixes for those two kinds of verbs are not always the same. Upon further research, I got to know that the action verb 쓰다, when written as such, is just an infinitive, while its simplest present tense form is 쓴다. Likewise, the most informal way to tell "I read" is 읽는다, while 읽다 is just an infinitive. But the infinitive and the plain present tense of an "adjectival" verb is the same, thus 작다 is both "to be small" and "(it) is small".

And when both kinds of verbs play the role of a relative clause (preceding the noun they qualify as an additional information to it), their endings, which give those relative clauses a kind of verbal tense, aren't exactly the same or do not mean the same thing. 읽는 여자 is "a girl who reads" and 읽은 여자 is "a girl who read (in the past)", but "a small girl" goes as 작은 여자 and "a girl who was small" translates as 작던 여자.

What category does the verb 없다 fall into, then? On one hand, I found its relative clause present form as 없는 (which can sometimes be translated as "without"), but on the other hand I found sample phrases showing 없다 (rather than 없는다) as "there isn't...". This seems to be a contradiction, since the first ending applies to action verbs, and the second ending applies to descriptive verbs.

However, since 없다 can also be translated as "(to be) absent", it's not evident whether it is an action verb or a descriptive verb. So?

3 Answers 3


As was mentioned by Michaelyus, 있다 and 없다 are special in that they are adjectives / descriptive verbs yet take the verb's -는 ending when they make an attributive adjective to modify a noun.

You will just have to remember them as special cases, but if you think about it, there is a good reason why they are this way.

The -(으)ㄴ ending creates an adjective from a verb. More precisely, it represents a resulting state of an action (like past participles in English). So if you eat an apple (사과를 먹다) partially, you have an halfway eaten apple (반쯤 먹 사과), and if someone dies (죽다), you have a dead person (죽 사람). The action itself takes the -는 ending, as in 먹 사람 (a person eating), 죽 것 (dying). We see action(-는) gives rise to state(-은), and this is why verbs and adjectives differ in their present tense -다 endings (읽는다 vs 작다) and attributive forms (읽는 vs 작은), just as you mentioned.

But 있다 and 없다 are a little different in that they represent existence which can't have triggering action leading to the state - they have a more fundamental and profound sense representing the unique notions of being and not being rather than having been created or not created. I think the -는 form expresses this concept of '(not) being', independent of how it came to be so, which is often beyond the grasp of ordinary human beings. These words seem to bear the philosophical notions of existence.

있다 does have 있는다 like other action verbs, but this has a slightly different meaning which is 'to stay' as opposed to the existential 'to be'. So 여기에 집이 있다 is about existence while 나 여기에 있는다 means 'I will stay here' and not 'I will exist here' which is nonsensical since no one can change anything about existence during their lifetime.

  • Everything clarified! Thank you both! 수고해셨슴니다!
    – swrutra
    Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 14:54
  • Almost forgot. So, since the verb 있다 has two meanings, with different endings, I guess that the attributive adjective in the sense "to exist" is 있은 / 있던 ("which exists" / "that existed") and in the sense "to stay" is 있는 / 있은 ("which stays" / "which stayed")?
    – swrutra
    Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 15:34
  • 1
    For 'to exist', 있는 (present), 있은 (one time past occurrence), and 있던 (past occurrence that lasted for a while) are all possible (but 있은 is relatively rare and often means an event/occurrence that took place in the past. e.g. 그 일이 있은 후로 = ever since it happened). For 'to stay', all three are possible, with 있은 less common again. -은 and -던 are both past forms, the former for completion of one time action and the latter something that repeated or lasted for a duration.
    – Tony
    Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 19:33

You are right about the morphological controversy: because of the absence of *없는다 as a form, 없다 is indeed an adjective / descriptive verb according to this classification.

But because of the lack of *없은, it comes into a league of its own (both an adjective / descriptive verb like 작다 and an action / processive verb like 읽다 will have the determiner in ~ㄴ/은, viz 작은 and 읽은).

This parallels what happens with 있다, which also lacks *있은. However, for the 해라체 form, 있다 does have both 있는다 and 있다 for its processive and descriptive verb functions respectively, in contrast to 없다 just having 없다.

As such, 없다 and 있다 are both just ... irregular (which comes as no surprise cross-linguistically).

  • I get what you mean, every language has its number of irregularities.
    – swrutra
    Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 14:56

The question seems to presume that "있은" and "없은" are not possible, and the existing answers repeat this. 국립어국어원 does not necessarily agree that this is the case. Particularly in grammar patterns such as ~ㄴ 지, they generally take the view that "있은 지" and "없은 지" are correct.

Sources: 1 2 3

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