The moment you are able to say what you want to do in a foreign language, you would also want to say what you don’t want to do.  The simplest way to say a negative sentence in Korean is to add “안” right before a verb or an adjective. When used with verbs, “안” strongly implies the intention NOT to do something by choice:

  • 나갔어요 I didn’t get out. [ by my own choice ]
  • 먹을래 I will not eat. [ my intention is not to eat. ]
  • 그거 예뻐요 It’s not pretty.
  • 색깔이 좋아요 The color is not good. 

When the verb is formed by (noun) + 하다, an exception applies to the above rule. For those very common verb forms, “안” should be inserted between the (noun) and 하다.  

  • 너 공부 안 하니? Aren’t you studying? [ 공부하다 to study => 공부 안 하다 not to study ]
  • 나 그 사람 사랑 해요 I don’t love him. [ 사랑하다 to love => 사랑 안 하다 not to love ]

To say “can not” instead of “will not” or “do not,” you can use “못” instead of “안” in the above structure/rule for verbs.  In other words, “못” indicates a lack of ability to do something (“not able to”). 

  • 나갔어요 I could not get out.
  • 아이가 먹어서 여위었구나 The child looks thin because he could not eat. 

Depending on the context, “못” also means “not do well,” as an extension of its meaning “not able to do … (well enough).” 

  • 넌 왜 운전을 그렇게 하니? Why do you drive so carelessly?
  • 나 한국말 잘 해요 I don’t speak Korean well [ Literally, “I can not do Korean well” ]

In Korean society, it is not the wisest thing to turn down an offer or an invitation straightforwardly. When someone extends an offer or an invitation to you and you don’t want to accept, you would need to be diplomatic and use “못” instead of “안”.  That powerful one-syllable word makes all the difference in Korean.  That way, you are saying “I am afraid I can’t” rather than “I will not” in English.

  • 미안해요, 오늘 저녁에 선약이 있어서 파티에 갈 것 같아요. I am sorry, I am afraid I can’t go to the party. I already have plans tonight. [ Instead of saying bluntly “파티에 갈 거예요. I am not going to the party.” ]
  • 성의는 감사하지만 이런 큰 선물은 제가 받습니다. 미안합니다. I appreciate your sincerity, but I can not accept such a big gift. I am sorry.  [ Instead of saying abruptly “이런 큰 선물은 제가 받습니다. I will not accept such a big gift,” which would most likely offend the Korean who offered the gift. ]

Unlike overly sensational presentations in some K-dramas designed for commercial purposes, real-world Koreans do not appreciate direct, straightforward refusals or comments, especially when it is about their sincere offers or invites out of good intentions. After all, Korea has been known as “the country of utter politeness in the East” even among our East Asian neighbors for thousands of years. Excessive straightforwardness is considered cold-hearted, unwise, and even barbaric in the eye of people in the Land of the Morning Calm. 

In the conversation below, 김지훈 speaks in 경상도 사투리 Gyeongsang-do Accent, a dialect spoken in the southeastern province of Korea, while 이주빈’s speech is standard Korean.  You might hear the difference in intonation.  When the dialect vocabulary is distinctly different in the subtitles, I marked them with an asterisk and translated them to the standard words in the note below.