Yet More Help with 그것이 알고 싶다

I’ve gotten help with a particular Korean grammatical construction twice now already (Post#1, Post#2) Today, my colleague D. Bannon emailed me as follows:

[Here are] my two bits on the “that’s what I wanna know” discussion.  I asked this question years ago, back in the 80s, but never found a satisfactory answer until I read Prof. Sohn’s book, quoted in the attached document.  Enjoy!

With D. Bannon’s permission and help from Prof. Sohn’s book, here’s his (as always, very helpful!) explanation:


그것이 알고 싶다!—THAT’S what I want to know!

나는 그것을 알고 싶다/나는 그것 알고 싶다, does it make ANY sense?  It does, actually, and it all depends on the verb.  A nominative case particle (이/가) is used in place of usual accusative particle (을/를) to add emphasis.  Think of이/가as a verbal italic, as in, “THAT’S what I want to know.”  [나는 그것이 알고 싶다]  In speech this places the focus on the object of the embedded verb, but the decision for which particle to use is based on the verb itself.  The verb dictates if the nominative or accusative must be used or if they are interchangeable, as explained by Ho-Min Sohn:

The desiderative construction with the adjective siphta ‘be wishful, be de-sirable, wish’ is a peculiar type of sensory construction.  First, the adjective must be preceded by a clause, which is its object.  Second, this object clause is nominalized by the gerundive suffix –ko.  Third, when the clause before –ko siphta is transitive, the object of the embedded verb may be marked with either a nominative or an accusative particle.  When siph-e hata occurs, the object is always in the accusative case.

na  nun   kheyik      i/ul     mek-ko    (ga/lul)   siph-ta

I    TC     cake     NM/AC  eat-NOM   NM/AC  wish-DC

‘I want to eat cake.’

Mia nun kyeyik    i/ul        mek-ko    (ga/lul)   siph-e      ha-n-ta

Mia TC   cake   NM/AC   eat-NOM  NM/AC   wish-INF  do-IN-DC

‘Mia wants to eat cake.’

Simply put, if the verb is desiderative, as with –고 싶다, a nominative case particle may be used to add emphasis.  Again from Sohn:

The desiderative adjective siphta ‘be desirable, wish’ is a special transitive sensory adjective.  It is a bound adjective and is used only when preceded by a verb clause that ends in the nominalizer suffix –ko.

na  nun  ku  chinkwu  ka   po-ko     siph-e

I    TC   the   friend  NM  see-to  wishful-INT

‘I wish to see that friend.’

이/가 plays an essential role in spoken language, bringing the focus of a given sentence directly to the most important point of the speech—which may or may not be the subject of the sentence.  As Sohn explains:

The accusative particle alternates with the nominative particle in causative sentences. . . . Desiderative sentences show similar alternation.

hyeng    un   tampay      lul/ka      phiwu-ko      siph-ess-e-yo

brother TC  cigarette   AC/NM   smoke-NOM    wish-PST-POL

‘My older brother wanted to smoke.’

In desiderative sentences, the accusative-marked nominal is associated with the transitive verb (e.g., phiwuta ‘smoke’), whereas the nominative-marked nominal is related to the emotive adjective siphta ‘wish’, as in hyeng un [tampay lul phiwu-ko] siph-ess-ta and hyeng un tampay ka [phiwu-ko] siph-ess-ta, respectively.

If the emphasis is on my own curiousity, I would say, “That’s what I want to know.”  나는 그것을 알고 싶다. However, in colloquial usage, the desiderative auxiliary verb indicates “that the speaker or subject wishes for the action or state of the main verb to happen or come about,” as explained Ihm, Ho Bin, Hong, Kyung Pyo and Chang, Suk In.  The emphasis rests on the object to be known, requiring the nominative case particle to emphasize this point.  So why the이/가 nominative case particle?  그것이 알고 싶다!


Im, Ho Bin, et al.  Korean Grammar for International Learners: New Edition.  Yonsei University Press (2001): 354.  Translated into English by Ross King.

Sohn, Ho-Min.  Cambridge Language Surveys: The Korean Language.  Cambridge University Press (2001): xix-xx, 287, 331, 384.

Key to Sohn’s abbreviations:

NM  Nominative case particle

TC   Topic-contrast particle

INT  Intimate speech level or suffice

AC   Accusative particle

NOM Nominalizer suffic

PST  Past tense and perfect aspect suffix

POL  Polite speech level suffix or particle

INF  Infinitive suffix

DC   Declarative sentence-type suffix

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