Home » Which One Should We Use? -에 and -에서 are confusing

Which One Should We Use? -에 and -에서 are confusing

-에 vs -에서

One of the elements that students struggle with when learning Korean grammar is undoubtedly ‘조사(Postpositions – unlike English prepositions, Korean particles are placed after the word they modify)’. Korean ‘조사’ are grammatical elements that don’t exist in their native languages, and their types and usages are incredibly diverse. Moreover, Koreans often omit 조사 when speaking, which can easily confuse Korean language learners. And if foreigners want to speak like Koreans by freely omitting 조사, they must first master these 조사 perfectly. So today, we will discuss the 조사, ‘-에’ and ‘-에서’, which beginner Korean learners find difficult.

“-에” and “-에서” are both used in relation to places or locations. That’s only the case at the beginner level. Their meanings and uses expand later, but let’s discuss that at the next level.

First, the uses of “-에” are as follows:

  1. When indicating a destination: “-에” is used to indicate the destination of movement. In this case, the verb must be a verb that indicates the movement of an object.
    • Example: “나는 스타벅스 간다.” (Destination = ‘Starbucks’)
    • Example: “남자친구가 미국 공부하러 간다.” (Destination = ‘America’)
    • Example: “오늘 부모님이 내 기숙사 오신다.” (Destination = ‘My dorm room’)
  2. When indicating a location: ‘-에’ can express location or place.
    • Example: “BTS가 무대 위 있다.” (Location = ‘On stage’)
    • Example: “열쇠가 가방 안 있다.” (Location = ‘Inside bag’)
  3. When referring to a target: ‘-에’ can also refer to a specific target.
    • Example : “그녀가 접시 음식을 담았다.” (Target is ‘Plate’)
    • Example : “나는 컵 우유를 따랐다.” (Target is ‘Cup’)
    • Example : “삼촌이 전재산을 주식 투자했다.” (Target is ‘Stocks’)

An important point in number 3 here is that even here, we use verbs such as ‘담았다(담다)’, which essentially means moving objects. We can think of plates, cups, and stocks as ‘destinations’, where ‘담다’ represents the movement of food, ‘따르다’ signifies the movement of liquid, and ‘투자하다’ indicates the movement of money.

In situations like above you will use ‘-에’. I usually teach students at beginner level that they can only use three words with ‘place+에’. Those are go/come/be. And if you limit your explanation with these three words, it helps when you try to understand the difference between ‘-에’ and ‘-에서’.

Now shall we look at the postposition ‘-에서’? Like ‘-에’, the postposition ‘-에서’ also represents places in various ways in context. Here are some examples:

  1. When indicating where an action takes place: ‘-에서’ is used when expressing where an action or activity occurs.
    • Example : “나는 도서관에서 시험공부를 한다.” (The action of studying takes place at library)
  2. When indicating starting point:-‘-에서’ can indicate starting point for movements.
    • Example: “비행기가 인천공항에서 출발했다.”(the starting point was Incheon Airport)

We use ‘-에서’ in such situations, but strictly speaking, any type of verb can follow ‘-에서’. For example let’s say there’s sentence “나는 도서관에서 춤을 춘다”. It might sound strange because libraries are spaces where people read books or study, but grammatically the sentence’s compatible. It’s not grammatically incorrect.(And there actually people who dance in libraries.)

Let’s change verbs? “나는 도서관에서 밥을 먹는다.” It’s grammatically correct . It makes sense too. That’s because many libraries in Korea have restaurants. People order food and eat at these restaurants, and some even bring packed lunches from home to eat there.

Let’s find something more absurd like dancing. “나는 도서관에서 빨래를 한다.” There are no washing machines at libraries. Unless you’re a janitor who cleans the library, you can’t do laundry at a library. But when we think about the compatibility of the postposition ‘-에서’ and verbs, this sentence is not grammatically incorrect.

Why do I emphasize ‘all’ verbs can be used with ‘-에서’? The reason is to differentiate it from ‘-에’. Remember how I explained earlier that ‘-에’ only goes with three verbs: go/come/be?

Think about it this way. ‘-에서’ is ‘-에+서’. Since one more character (서) was added, shouldn’t there be an evolution in meaning? What needs to precede for you to do something(verb) at some place? First, you have to go to that place! You must first arrive(come) at that place! You must be at that place first! Only then can you execute ‘all’ verbs there.

To study for exams at library, you must first go to the library. For a plane to take off from Incheon Airport, it must have been there before taking off.

Summary 1

  1. You Go/Come/Be at some place. [‘-에’]
  2. If you already went there or came there or be there?
  3. You can do anything(all verbs)at that place. [‘-에서’]

Summary 2

  1. ‘-에’ is used when indicating destination of movement. ’-에’ can be used with only three verbs: go/come/be (at beginner level)
  2. ’-에서’ is used when expressing where an action or activity occurs. ’-에서’ can be used with all verbs.
  3. When ‘-에’ and ‘-에서’ get confusing, think about order. Firstly, you must be at that place.


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