Monday, September 14, 2009

Why do Koreans say 모르겠습니다?

When Koreans do not know the answer to a question, they often reply with 모르겠습니다, but why do they say 모르겠습니다 instead of 모릅니다?

Besides being used to refer to the future, -겠 can also be used to guess at something or to speculate. When the subject of a sentence is first person (I), the reply 모르겠습니다 (I guess I don't know) does not make sense because there is no reason to guess about your own lack of knowledge. You either know it or not, so instead of 모르겠습니다, it would be more logical to say 모릅니다 (I don't know) when referring to your own lack of knowledge.

However, you can speculate on someone else's lack of knowledge, so you could use 모르겠습니다 when the subject of a sentence is a third person. Consider the following dialog:
A: 그 사람 6시에 시작하는 걸 알아?
B: 그 사람은 (아마) 모르겠습니다. (그 사람은 모를 겁니다.)

A: Does he know it starts at 6?
B: He probably doesn't know.
In the above conversation, Koreans would normally say 모를 겁니다 when the subject is a third person, but 모르겠습니다 means the same thing and, therefore, should be able to substitute.

I think what has happened is that Koreans used to use 모르겠습니다 only with a third-person subject, but, over time, they started misusing it with the first person (나) until it has now become pretty much standard. However, I would still recommend using 모릅니다 instead of 모르겠습니다 when the subject is first person (I) since 모릅니다 is more logical and works just fine. In other words, when someone asks you a question to which you do not know the answer, it would be better if you said 모릅니다 instead of 모르겠습니다.


  1. Politeness is built into 모르겠다 so if you are just saying 모르다 it might come off as less polite. Same applies to 알겠다 and 아르다. An example I'd also like to give:

    A: 오늘 저녁 먹자
    B: 미안, 오늘 다른 친구 만날 거야
    A: _________.

    If you use 알았어 on the last answer, it can seem like you are kinda upset they are meeting someone else. Do you know the term 삐지다? If one says 알겠어 there doesn't seem to be a feeling of 삐지다.

    Also 겠다 is general is used for politeness.
    "소주 주시겠어요?"
    -겠다 makes the sentence more polite, so also 모르겠다 and 알겠다 also seem more polite. I don't think the reason really matters, we just have to accept some when learning a language.

    There are plenty of things I've taught to Koreans where I had no clue why the English language made it the way it did. A native speaker just accepts those weird things about his language, while a lot of non native speakers question them and think too much about it. Anyway another great post ^^

  2. Blue Soju,

    I think the "politeness" explanation is an after-the-fact explanation because it does not logically make any sense. Also, politiness is already built into the -습니다 ending. However, my grammar book, not the dictionary, says something similar to what you wrote about how some Koreans may interpret its usage.

    In its explanation of -겠-, my grammar book wrote the following:

    7. (일부 동사에 붙어) 그러한 상황-상태에 이를 것 같다는 말하는 사람의 생각을 부드럽게, 또는 우회적으로 말할 때 쓴다.

    7. (When attached to some verbs) It is used when the person saying that a situation or state will probably happen wants to sound softer and more indirect.

    The examples my grammar book gives are the following:

    1) 잘 알겠습니다.
    2) 아직 모르겠습니다.
    3) 속상해 죽겠어요.
    4) 더워서 미치겠어요.

    My grammar book says that Example 1) is saying that one understood (이해했다) what was said, but if it was meant to mean that, then why doesn't the person just say 이해했습니다 or even 알았습니다, both of which use the past tense instead of the future? I think my interpretation of "I will remember" what you said sounds more logical and fits with the definition of 알다.

    My grammar book says that Example 2 shows that the person understands the meaning of what the other person said or does not agree with it. ('모르겠다'는 의미로 지금 상대방의 말을 '이해한다', '동의할 수 없다'는 의미를 나타낸다.)

    The above explanations, especially for 모르겠다, sounds like more double talk to me.

    As for Examples 3 and 4, I do not think they fall into the same category. My grammar book just says that when -겠- is attached to verbs with negative meanings, such as 죽다 and 미치다, it intensifies the meaning, so the meanings are 아주 속상하다 and 아주 덥다, which are meanings we can understand and that we understand and that can be explained.

    속상해 죽겠다, for example, could be translated as "I am so upset that I think I am going to die," which makes sense since -겠- is being used with its future tense meaning.

    I do not see any problem with using 알겠습니다 since 알다 can mean "to remember," but I still have a problem with 모르겠습니다. The only time I think it might be necessary to use 모르겠습니다 is when it is used with the sense of giving up on trying to understand something since 모르다 can also mean "be not concerned with," so 난 모르겠다 can mean "I will not be concerned with it anymore."

  3. Which grammar book are you referencing by the way?

    겠다 has many functions.
    -future tense
    -adding politeness
    -other misc functions like you showed with 죽겠다 (etc)

    Also I think trying to apply logic to language is the wrong thing to do. Especially since many grammar have many functions and exceptions. For example "would" is normally more polite, i.e. "Would you like some coffee." But telling someone "Would you shut up" is not anymore polite than "shut up." There are many examples of this in all languages. So again, I think choosing what's "logical" is the wrong attitude in learning a language, we just have to accept it.

  4. The grammar book was the 국립국어원 grammar book.

    I am only on a break, so I cannot give a long answer, but I see no problem with trying to learn language in a "logical" way.

    If you try to learn all the misuses of a language and all the regional variations, you will never learn a language. Linguists will explain a language to death if you let them.

    I prefer order to anarchy. For example, why use 었던 when some Koreans use it to mean ㄴ/은 and others use it to mean 던? When you hear 었던, you will have to look to the rest of the sentence to try to figure out what the speaker meant. I say don't make listeners guess at your meaning; ignore 었던 and use either ㄴ/은 or 던, instead.

  5. But things like 모르겠다/알겠다 are not a mis usage or regional variations. They are 100% correct in Korean. You are trying to find reasons for why the 겠다 is there when it should just be accepted.

    When we say something like "Isn't she cute?"(to seek someone's agreement) it doesn't logically make sense language wise. Why are we using a negation to seek agreement? Or for example why do we say "Why don't we ~" for a suggestion? What is the point in having both 'a' and 'an' in English? They both do the same thing etc etc. Instead of questioning these things in English, we just use them because it is the way it is.

    You can nitpick many things about Korean grammar and it's function/usages, but it works fine for Koreans. Koreans can also nitpick the weird things about English, but it works fine for the both of us.

  6. Bluesoju,

    Just because 모르겠습니다 and 알겠습니다 exist does not mean they are always used correctly.

    I have already said that 알겠습니다 is appropriate for responding to criticism since it can mean "I will remember" what you said, but it would be wrong to use it in the example you gave. In other words, I think your dialog should be as follows:

    A: 오늘 저녁 먹자
    B: 미안, 오늘 다른 친구 만날 거야
    A: 알았어.

    I do not think there are Koreans who would say 알겠어 in such a situation. Also, I think it should be 만나기로 했어, not 만날 거야, because 만날 거야 sounds like a snub.

    As for 모르겠다, I think it is regularly misused. Koreans can use 모르겠다 to show that they have given up on worrying about something, as I explained above, since 모르다 can mean "have nothing to do with something." Therefore, 모르겠다 would mean "I will have nothing to do with it." Maybe Koreans are so used to using 모르겠다 with such a meaning that they have ended up using it in inappropriate situations, as well?

    Also, Koreans seem to have a prejudice against 모릅니다 and 모른다, For example, in the section of my grammar book talking about the -을지 conjunction, all of the examples used either 모르겠다 or 몰라. None used 모른다. Why?

    Consider just a few of the examples from my grammar book:

    1) 나느 그 사람이 어떤 영화를 좋아할지 모르겠다.
    2) 지금쯤 아이가 학교 정문으로 나오고 있을지도 모르겠다.
    3) 철수는 그 쉬운 문제를 틀렸을지도 몰라.
    4) 지금 서울은 새벽일지도 몰라.

    Notice that the above examples used either 모르겠다 and 몰라, but not 모른다. Notice also that 몰라 was used, but not 모르겠어. Why was 모르겠다 used, but not 모르겠어?

    I do not think Koreans normally say 좋아할지 모르겠어, so why do they say 좋아할지 모르겠다?

    It seems to me that many Koreans are using 모르겠다 in place of 모른다. Maybe, they do not like the sound of 모른다. Maybe they are so used to saying 모른겠다 in other situations that it has become a reflexive response for all situations? Anyway, 모른다 is more appropriate and logical than 모르겠다 for the examples I gave above.

    I think 모르겠다 is just another example of Korean running amuck.

  7. Yes "만나기로 했어" is the much better choice, but I was trying to make a simple elementary dialog.

    "I do not think there are Koreans who would say 알겠어 in such a situation"
    Koreans DO use this in that way. Not only have I also confirmed it with my Korean coworkers, but I have also had many similar dialogs in real life.

    Back to the example:

    A: 오늘 저녁 같이 먹자
    B: 미안, 다른 친구랑 만나기로 했어.
    A: ___________

    Let's look at the difference:
    -A1: 알았어 (can sometimes come off as if the person is bitter, disapointed or make the other person think you are 삐졌어 )
    -A2: 알겠어 (better choice because it won't give off the feeling of bitterness or 삐졌어)

    When I would tell the person "알았어" many people would message me back and ask "삐쪘어?" ("are you mad/upset?")

    My textbook also indicates that 겠다 is added for politeness and shows 모르겠다 and 알겠다 as examples.

    "Also, Koreans seem to have a prejudice against 모릅니다 and 모른다"
    I think these are just not commonly used. Just like in English some grammar and words just don't tend to be used even though grammatically it makes sense.

    You're also recommending to your readers to use a word based on what seems more linguistically logical rather than what Koreans would actually use.

  8. Hi!

    Congratulations! Your readers have submitted and voted for your blog at The Daily Reviewer. We compiled an exclusive list of the Top 100 North Korea Blogs, and we are glad to let you know that your blog was included! You can see it at

    You can claim your Top 100 Blogs Award here :

    P.S. This is a one-time notice to let you know your blog was included in one of our Top 100 Blog categories. You might get notices if you are listed in two or more categories.

    P.P.S. If for some reason you want your blog removed from our list, just send an email to with the subject line "REMOVE" and the link to your blog in the body of the message.


    Angelina Mizaki
    Selection Committee President
    The Daily Reviewer

  9. Bluesoju,

    I think you may have gotten it backwards regarding the following example.

    A: 오늘 저녁 같이 먹자
    B: 미안, 다른 친구랑 만나기로 했어.
    A: ___________

    I just finished asking three Koreans in my department office about your example, and they told me that the most natural response was "그래, 알았어."

    They said that if you were to say 알겠어, it would sound like you were angry and were threatening not to ask them to lunch again in the future.

    Maybe you should check with your Korean friends, again.

    Koreans say 좋아할지 모르겠다, 좋아할지 몰라, and 좋아할지 모른다, but they almost never say 좋아할지 모르겠어. Why?

    몰라 and 모른다 are both present tense and sound good with 좋아할지, but 좋아할지 모르겠어 does not sound right, and if you can Google it, you will find very few examples of it. That suggests that -겠- is not meant to be used with 좋아할지. I think the only reason that you see 좋아할지 모르겠다 is that Koreans have gotten so used to using 모르겠다 in other situations that they are now using it in situations that would normally require 모른다 or 몰라.

    The language I am suggesting people to use is appropriate language, so people will not be making mistakes by using it. Maybe, people should know about the less appropriate language, but I do not see why they need to be adding to the problem by using it.

  10. I'm positive about the 알았어 sounding more angry. How can 알겠다 be more friendly/polite in all other situations, but suddenly become more rude in that example? That makes no sense at all.

    I think your coworkers mean the fact if you just add ONLY "알겠어" rather than "그래, 일겠어" it can sound more rude, but 알았어 is definitely more rude than 알겠어. I asked a Korean high school teacher in Korea and several other Korean high school teachers (coworkers). They should either be comparing:
    "그래 알겠어" vs "그래 알았어"
    or just "알겠어" vs "알았어"

    not "그래 알았어" vs just "알겠어"

    Is there anything in your grammar books that state the usage of 알겠다 is wrong in the cases you've named? If none of the grammar books say it's wrong or if Korean students are not taught it is wrong, then it shouldn't be assumed it's wrong. Whether or not it was originally intended to be used that way is a mystery, but languages do definitely change over time.

  11. Bluesoju wrote:

    I'm positive about the 알았어 sounding more angry. How can 알겠다 be more friendly/polite in all other situations, but suddenly become more rude in that example? That makes no sense at all.

    I wrote in another post that 알다 can mean "to remember" and suggested that when Koreans respond with 알겠습니다 after being admonished that it means, "I will remember what you are saying." In other words, they are saying "I will take your words to heart."

    When my coworkers told me today that 알겠어 sounded somewhat angry and threatening, I thought that they might be interpreting it as "I'll remember this" (and will never invite you to dinner, again), which agrees with the "to remember" meaning of 알다.

    It would not matter if you added 그래 or not to either 알았어 or 알겠어, but my coworkers were repeating over and over both 그래, 알았어 and 그래, 아겠어 to try to distinguish the meanings. After doing that, they told me that 그래, 알았어 sounded more natural and polite.

    If your coworkers said that 그래, 아겠어 was more polite, and my coworkers said that they thought 그래, 알았어 sounded more polite, then that suggests confusion about the expression in Korean society.

    Mr. Lee Su-yeol (이수열), who is famous for writing books about the misuse of the Korean language in Korean society, says that 알았습니다 should be used instead of 알겠습니다 in the situation we are talking about. Here is what he wrote about 알겠습니다:

    부모나 교사, 선배가 타이르는 말을 들은 학생의 대답이 대체로 "알겠습니다"다. 시청자가, 아나운서들이 잘못한 말을 지적해서 알려 주면 방송사 사람들은 "알겠습니다" 하고 전화를 끊는다. 그렇게 대답하는 사람의 진의가 다 그렇지는 않겠지만, 그 말을 논리대로 해석하면, 들은 말의 내용이나 요지를 아직은 잘 몰랐다는 뜻이 된다.

    현행 학교 문법에서 '선어말어미'라고 하는 '겠'에는 1) 미래시제--장차 알겠다, 2) 의지--그 일은 내가 하겠다, 3) 가능성--그런 문제는 나도 풀겠다, 4) 추측--내일은 비가 오겠다의 뜻이 있다. 훈계나 충고, 알려 주는 말을 듣고 나서 '알았다'고 하지 않고 '알겠다'고 하면 당장은 몰랐지만 차후에 알겠다는 뜻인지, 알아볼 의지가 있다는 뜻인지, 생각해 보면 알 수 있겠다는 뜻인지, 생각해 보면 알 수 있을 것 같다는 뜻인지, 매우 모호해서 그 내용이 당장 실천에 옮겨야 할일이면 도무지 신뢰성이 없다. 성실한 자세로 다 듣고도 숙지하지 못 했으면 다르쳐 물어서 보충 설명을 들어 충분히 납득하고 '알았다'고 실천 의지를 보이는 것이 신용 있는 사람의 자세다.

  12. I was specifically told that 알았어 can have the tone of arrogance and rudeness in certain contexts. Also
    In terms of 알다's meaning, in my opinion it fits more of the meaning of "to understand, to see, to get, to grasp."

    To me it seems like the person is saying "ok, I understand" in the dialog we are discussing. Since many Koreans believe the 겠다 adds politeness, then 알겠어 seems more polite version of "I understand" and "알았어" can seem a little bitter. It would nice to run a little experiment based on how Koreans feel about both answers.

    And you are probably right about the confusion among Koreans as well. Seems to be a lot of conflicting information. Anyway it's good of you to make a topic like this.

  13. Bluesoju,

    Of course, you can say anything with an arrogant and rude tone, but 알았어 is not arrogant or rude; it is normal.

    I have made a new post on the subject:

    Do you understand "알았어, 알겠어"?

  14. Yes tone does matter, but certain words do give off different feelings in certain contexts.

    For example in English, answering someone with "no" instead of "nope" can be a different feeling as a one answer reply. In my experience, same applies with "알았어."

    I'd like to do some more research on this topic when I can get some free time and i'll get back to you.

  15. Hello. I've been reading your and Soju's.."debate" though to be honest, i didn't finish it cuz it got too long. Anyway, I'm not korean nor a native Korean speaker but i have to agree with Bluesoju. I think all languages have their quirks which don't make sense logically but that doesn't mean they're wrong. Some are just fixed expressions. I like your (Gerry Bevers) blog a lot but i do think you should be teaching what are commonly used and accepted in the Korean language than what you think is right or what makes sense for you.
    Also, i'm pretty sure that 알았어 is more..disappointed and a little pissed that 알겠어.i also don't understand why the 겠어 is there and actually, i personally think 이해해 would make more sense, but regardless, i think what Bluesoju said about 알겠어 is correct. Sorry, but i think you, Gerry Bevers, must've been mistaken after asking your colleagues because i don't know how 알겠어 can come off as bitter.

  16. 모르겠습니다 is more natural than 모릅니다. the 겠습니다 the part adds more of the feeling unsureness.

    so it makes the statement "I don't know" sound even more unsure which sounds more polite as oppose to an assertion.

  17. if you want to speak natural korean than what you see... which is 모르겠습니다?"

    I dont get why you're fighting it based on your logic that you are arguing about in english. there's no point. it is what it is and you can't make the koreans change.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.