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On a learning site, one of the exercise questions was to translate English "What is the name of the owl?" into Korean. The answer I gave was:

부엉이의 이름이 무엇이에요?

but the correct answer shown to me was:

부엉이는 이름이 뭐예요?

which really confused me. Why is the particle -는 used on 부엉이? Could this be thought of as "What is the owl named?"

I know that not every verb simply uses 는/이/가 and 를 with the two things the verb is operating on, but rather, a few use 는 and 이/가, such as 있다. Is this something like that?

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Both sentences can work.

  1. 부엉이의 이름이 무엇이에요? => Grammatically fine but clunky in everyday speech.
  2. 부엉이 이름이 뭐예요? => Smoother version of #1, and most natural in speech.
  3. 부엉이는 이름이 뭐예요? => Alternative way, especially when you draw someone's attention to the owl.

Sentences with both 는 and 이 like #3 are not limited to just 있다 and 없다. You can say it anytime you talk about certain attribute of something. It is one of the foundational patterns in Korean and Japanese.

For example, compare these two.

  1. 이 직업(의) 이직률은 높다 = Turnover rate of this job is high.
  2. 이 직업은 이직률이 높다 = Speaking of this job, the turnover rate is high.

While both can be said, #2 sounds better. It is a two-tier sentence with a natural flow of thoughts, in which you first set the high level topic (이 직업) and then state the detail (이직률이 높다) about it. Saying 이 직업의 이직률은 has the disadvantage of making the listener wait longer to catch the subject which is usually the most important part.

French also commonly uses this pattern, and you do see it in colloquial English too in sentence like "Me, I'm a simple-minded guy". You set the topic to "me" first before saying the detail. But English lacks a special support for such a construct, so "I" is unnecessarily repeated unlike in Korean.

Other examples:

나는 머리가 아프다 = (As for me,) My head aches.
이 집은 처마가 낮다 = (As for) This house, it has low eaves = This house has low eaves.
문어는 다리가 8개이다 = (As for) Octopus, they have eight legs = Octopus has eight legs.

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  • Thank you so much! 감사합니다! I think I understand now. Your explanation is very detailed and thorough.
    – Pistos
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 1:21

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