Now, in English when we count countable nouns, we basically add a number word in front of a plural noun and count things, and with uncountable nouns, we use certain counter words, such as a sheet of paper and a grain of rice. However, in Korean, whatever noun you want to count, you have to use a counter word. So today, we’re going to learn many common counter words we use to count people and things in Korean, and we’ll also learn how we can use them.

  • What number system do you use?
  • Common counter words
  • Counting people
  • Counting months
  • Counting time

What number system do we use?

Now, before we start, it’s important to note that in general, we use native-Korean numbers to count in Korean, and although most numbers are used as they are, there are five numbers that are used in their shortened forms.

  • 1 하나 – 한
  • 2 둘 – 두
  • 3 셋 – 세
  • 4 넷 – 네
  • 20 스물 – 스무

Additionally, although we generally use native-Korean numbers to count in Korean, once you start counting in numbers above 20, it’s quite common for Koreans to use either Sino-Korean and native-Korean numbers. Generally speaking, up to about 40, it’s still more common to use native-Korean numbers, but any number above that, you can use one or the other.


Common counter words

Here is a list of some of the most common counter words

  • – to count things in general (most common counter word)
  • – to count books
  • 다발 – to count a bunch of flowers
  • 달, 개월 – to count months
  • – to count vehicles (such as cars and aeroplanes), and machinery (such as a TV)
  • 마리 – to count animals, fish, insects
  • 분, 명 – to count people
  • – to count the number of times
  • – to count bottles
  • – to count age
  • 시간 – to count hours
  • – to count paper
  • – to count letters, phone calls, and emails
  • – to count movies, and episodes of TV shoes and dramas
  • 켤레 – to count things we wear on our feet (such as shoes and socks), similar in meaning to ‘pair’.

To count in Korean, we generally use a native Korean number and a counter word. Here are few examples.

  • 1 hour – 한 시간
  • 3 sheets (of paper) – 세 장
  • 5 bottles – 다섯 병

The key point to note with using these counter words is that we use the number word in front of the counter word. However, quite often we need to specify what noun we’re counting, especially if a counter word is used to count many different things, so we can also use the nouns that we’re counting with counter words. Here are few examples.

  • 10 lions – 사자 열 마리
  • 3 sheets of paper – 종이 세 장
  • 5 bottles of beer – 맥주 다섯 병
  • 2 phone calls – 전화 두 통

So if we want to specify what we’re counting, we use the noun in front of the number word and the counter word, and this is really common when the counter word is used to count many different things.

Let’s now take a look at some counter words where we have to follow certain usage rules.


Counting people

There are two counter words to count people in Korean, and they are 명 and 분. Generally speaking, 명 is a standard word for counting people and 분 is the honorific form, so when we count people who are older than us, or maybe higher up in the corporate hierarchy, then we would use 분.

One thing to note with using 명 and 분 is that, when we count the group of people which I am in, even if there are people older than me in that group, we have to use 명 and NOT 분. This is because we never use honorific forms when we talk about ourselves, so if we go to a restaurant with your parents and you want to say ‘three people’, you would say

  • 세 명이요. (3 people)

Another word we can use to count people 사람, and 사람 is a general word that means people, so it’s actually more commonly used in everyday speech to talk about people. However, we can also use 사람 to count people (세 사람 / 3 people). 사람 is similar to 명 in that it’s not a respectful term, so we should not use 사람 when counting people we need to be respectful to.


Counting months

When we count months, there are two counter words, and they are 달 and 개월. Both are commonly used, but they are used with different number systems.

  • – used with native-Korean numbers
  • 개월 – used with Sino-Korean numbers

The reason is because 달 is a pure Korean word, while 개월 (個月) originally comes from Chinese.

Generally speaking, 달 and 개월 can be used interchangeably. So if you want to say that you’ve lived in Korean for two months, you could say.

  • 한국에 산 지 두 달 됐어요. (I’ve lived in Korea for two months.)
  • 한국에 산 지 이 개월 됐어요. (I’ve lived in Korea for two months.)

Both of these sentences sound very natural. However, there is a subtle difference in their nuance, as 달 focuses more on the length of time, while 개월 focuses more on the number of months, so depending on whether we want to focus on the duration or the number of months, we can focus on using one over the other.

Additionally, in certain contexts, it’s more natural to use one over the other. For example, when Korean women talk about how long they have been pregnant for, it’s more common to use 개월 than 달. So to say ‘I’ve been pregnant for 6 months’, you would say.

In this sentence, it would sound a little awkward (not incorrect) if the persons said ‘여섯 달’. So these different ways of using 달 and 개월 in certain contexts is something you need to watch out for as you learn Korean.


Counting time

To count time, there are three key words.

  • 시간 – hour
  • – minute
  • – second

There are a couple of things to note. First, when we talk about time we use 시 to say the hour and 분 to say the minute, so to say 1:30, we would say.

  • 한 시 삼십 분 – 1:30

And while we use 분 to also count minutes, we only use 시 to say the house of the day, and to count the house we use 시간.The other important point to note is that we use different number systems for each word.

  • 시간 – use native-Korean numbers
  • – use Sino-Korean numbers
  • – use Sino-Korean numbers

Here are some example phrases using 시간, 분, 초

  • 2 hours - 두 시간
  • 6 hours - 여섯 시간
  • 25 minutes - 이십오 분
  • 40 minutes - 사십 분
  • 30 seconds - 삼십 초

So do keep that in mind when you’re counting time, we use native-Korean numbers for hours, and Sino-Korean numbers for minutes and seconds.


Okay, so that’s it for this post. Hope you found the information useful and we’ll be back with more useful post in the future. 다음에 또 봐요!