Lesson 20: Well and Poorly: 잘 and 못

Click here for a workbook to go along with this lesson.
This lesson is also available in Русский.

Jump to:

Vocabulary
Introduction

잘하다: To do something well
잘: Well

못하다: To do something poorly
못: Poorly
~지 못하다

잘못

 

Vocabulary

Click on the English word to see information and examples of that word in use (you probably won’t be able to understand the grammar within the sentences at this point, but it is good to see as you progress through your learning).

A PDF file neatly presenting these words and extra information can be found here.

Nouns:
교수 = professor

Common Usages:
교수님 = polite way to say “professor”

Example:
저의 남자친구는 교수님 같이 보여요 = My boyfriend looks like a professor
교수는 다른 교수들보다 수업을 더 잘해요 = That professor teaches classes better than other professors
교수님은 마지막 수업이 끝나고 학생들을 위해 식사를 샀어요 = The professor bought a meal for the students after the last class
학생들이 너무 시끄러워서 저는 교수님의 말을 못 들었어요 = The students were too loud, so I couldn’t hear the professor

주인 = master/owner/proprietor

Common Usages:
집주인 = landlord
주인공 = the main character in a movie, story

Example:
그 강아지의 주인은 누구예요? = Who is the owner of that dog?
주인은 손님들을 잘 대우해요 = That owner treats the customers well

잘못 = mistake/fault

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “잘몯”

Notes: This word would normally be easy, however it is more difficult than it needs to be because 잘못 (without a space) and 잘 못 (with a space) have to different meanings. See Lesson 20 for more information.

Example:
그것은 제 잘못이었어요 = That was my fault/mistake

기온 = temperature

Common Usages:
최고기온 = the highest temperature
최저기온 = the lowest temperature

Notes: This is used for the temperature of the weather.

Example:
내일 최고기온은 10도예요 = Tomorrow the high temperature is 10 degrees

거울 = mirror

Example:
여자는 자기의 모습을 거울에서 봤어요 = She looked at herself in the mirror

가루 = powder

Common Usages:
밀가루 = flour
고춧가루 = hot pepper powder

Example:
케이크 반죽에 밀가루를 넣으세요 = Put some flour into the cake batter, please

근육 = muscle

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “그뉵”

Common Usages:
근육질이다 = to be muscular
근육통 = muscle pain
근육을 키우다 = to build muscles

Examples:
목에는 근육이 많아요 = There are many muscles in your neck
남자는 자기 근육을 여자들에게 드러냈어요 = The man revealed his muscles to the girls

어둠 = darkness

Common Usages:
어둠이 무섭다 = to be afraid of the dark

Notes: This is the noun form of 어둡다 (dark)

Examples:
부부는 어둠으로 사라졌어요 = The couple disappeared into the darkness
저의 돈을 훔치고 범죄자들은 어둠으로 사라졌어요 = The criminals disappeared into the darkness after stealing my money

기본 = basic/basics

Common Usages:
기본요금 = basic fare
기본적으로 = basically

Example: 그 학생은 물리의 기본도 이해하지 못해요 = That student doesn’t even understand basic physics

사고 = accident

Common Usages:
교통사고 = car/traffic accident
사고가 나다 = for an accident to happen

Example:
한국 정부는 교통사고를 방지하려고 노력하고 있어요 = The Korean government is trying to prevent traffic accidents

교통 = traffic

Common Usages
교통사고 = car/traffic accident
교통카드 = bus card
대중교통 = mass transportation
교통혼잡 = traffic jam/congestion

Example:
사람이 너무 많아서 서울에서는 교통혼잡이 심해요 = The traffic jams in Seoul are severe because there are too many people

Verbs:
잘하다 = to do something well

The main meaning of 잘하다 is “to do something well.” To use 잘하다, simply place a noun in a sentence with 잘하다 as the verb. For example:

나는 수영을 잘해 = I swim well
저 학생은 공부를 잘해 = That student studies well
우리 애기는 말을 잘해요 = Our baby speaks well
저는 야구를 잘해요 = I play baseball well
저 학생은 공부를 잘해요 = That student studies well

못하다 = to do something poorly

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “모타다”

못하다 has the opposite meaning of 잘하다. For example:

나는 수영을 못해 = I am bad at swimming
저 학생은 공부를 못해 = That student does not study well
제가 너무 부끄러워서 발표를 못해요 = I can’t do presentations (well) because I am so shy
저는 수학을 못해요 = I am bad at math

수영하다 = to swim

Common Usages:
수영복 = swimming suit
수영장 = swimming pool

Example:
저는 어렸을 때 수영을 많이 했어요 = I swam a lot when I was younger

대우하다 = to treat somebody

The noun form of this word translates to “treatment”

Notes: 대하다 is a common word with a similar meaning

Common Usages:
친절하게 대우하다 = to treat nicely
함부로 대우하다 = to treat badly
동등하게 대우하다 = to treat evenly
공평하게 대우하다 = to treat fairly

Example: 그 주인은 손님들을 잘 대우해요 = That owner treats the customers well

퇴직하다 = to retire

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “퇴지카다”
The noun form of this word translates to “retirement”

Common Usages:
퇴직금 = severance pay (you get this when you leave a company, not when you retire. Usually, each year a person works at a company, they will accrue money into their 퇴직금. Whenever they leave, they can get it all in a lump sum).

Example:
사람들은 보통 65 살이 되면 퇴직해요 = People usually retire when they are 65 years old

접수하다 = to receive (an application)

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “접쑤하다”

Common Usages:
접수 마감일 = the final date to receive something

Notes: 접수하다 is a weird word. It technically means “to receive,” but it usually used when the subject is giving something. It doesn’t make much sense, but that is how it is used.

Example:
저는 서울대학교에 원서를 접수했어요 = This should translate to “I gave my application to Seoul University” or “I applied to Seoul University,” but it also technically means “Seoul University received my application. This word is not said very often. You will see it written more commonly than you will hear it spoken.

씹다 = to chew

Common Usages:
음식을 씹다 = to chew food
꼭꼭 씹다 = to chew thoroughly

Example:
수업 시간 동안 껌을 지 마세요 = Don’t chew gum during the class

통역하다 = to interpret

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “통여카다”
The noun form of this word translates to “interpretation”

Common Usages:
통역사 = interpreter

Example:
저는 한국어를 못해서 통역사가 필요해요 = I need an interpreter because I can’t speak Korean

번역하다 = to translate

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “버녀카다”
The noun form of this word translates to “translation”

Common Usage:
직접 번역하다 = to translate directly

Example:
학생들은 그 이야기를 한국어에서 영어로 번역할 거예요 = The students will translate that conversation (or story) from Korean to English

젓다 = to stir

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “젇따”

젓다 follows the ㅅ irregular

Common Usages:
커피를 젓다 = stir coffee

Example:
저는 반죽을 딱딱할 때까지 저었어요 = I stirred the batter until it was hard

늘리다 = to gain, to improve, to increase

실력을 늘리다 = improve one skills
길이를 늘리다 = increase the length
… 수를 늘리다 = increase the number of something
… 시간을 늘리다 = increase the time of something

Example:
저의 친구는 한국어 실력을 늘렸어요 = My friend increased his Korean skills

빠지다 = to fall into

Common Usages:
늪에 빠지다 = an idiom for being stuck in something (literally, “to fall into a swamp”)
사랑에 빠지다 = to fall in love

Example:
열심히 운동하고 지금 힘이 빠졌어요 = After exercising, I now have no energy (my energy has all fallen out)

빠져나오다 = to escape, to come out of

Notes: This is a compound word with the meanings of 빠지다 and 나오다 combined.

Example:
회사장은 많은 시위자들로부터 드디어 빠져나왔어요 = The CEO finally escaped (came out of) the crowd of protestors

빠져나가다 = to escape, to go out of

Notes: This is a compound word with the meanings of 빠지다 and 나가다 combined.

Example:
군인들은 적의 덫에서 못 빠져나갔어요 = The soldiers could not escape the enemy’s trap

헷갈리다 = to be confused

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “헫깔리다”

Notes: Learners sometimes this that 헷갈리다 is an adjective that describes something as “confusing.” However, 헷갈리다 is a verb which describes the mental struggle that goes on in one’s head when confused (often when having to remember or choose from multiple choices).

Example:
이 문제 답이 A인지 B인지 헷갈려요 = I’m confused if the answer to this question is A or B
나는 엄마의 핸드폰 번호가 맨날 헷갈려요 = I’m confused every day (always) of my mother’s cell phone number
이 음식에 소금을 넣는 건지 설탕을 넣는 건지 헷갈려요 = I’m confused if I put salt or sugar in this food

Passive Verbs:
늘다 = to be gained, improved, increased

늘다 follows the ㄹ irregular
Notes: This is the passive form of the active verb “늘리다”

Examples:
저의 친구의 한국어 실력이 많이 늘었다 = My friend’s Korean (skills) really increased/got better
저의 친구는 한국어 실력을 늘렸다 = My friend increased his Korean skills

Adjectives:
둥글다 = to be round, to be spherical

둥글다 follows the ㄹ irregular

Example:
미식축구공은 둥글지 않아요 = The American football ball isn’t round

어둡다 = to be dark

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “어둡따”

어둡다 follows the ㅂ irregular

Example:
교실이 너무 어두워서 학생들은 칠판을 볼 수 없어요 = The students can’t see the board because the classroom is too dark
지금 점점 어두워지고 있어서 우리는 산에서 내려가야 돼요 = We need to go down the mountain, because it is gradually getting darker

Adverbs and Other Words:
= well

Common Usages:
잘 자다 = to sleep well
잘 먹다 = to eat well (this is usually said when somebody eats a lot)

After you finish a meal, it is polite to say “잘 먹었습니다”

Example:
저는 어젯밤에 잤어요 = I slept well last night
선생님은 우리를 너무 가르치셨어요 = Our teacher taught us really well
저는 몇몇 한국사람들보다 한국어를 더 말할 수 있어요 = I can speak Korean better than some Korean people

= poorly

The pronunciation of this word is closer to “몯”

The usage of 못 is very complex. See below in this lesson for more information.

Examples:
저는 어제 시험을 못 봤어요 = I did poorly on the exam yesterday / I didn’t write the exam yesterday
이 셔츠가 너무 작아서 입어요 = I can’t put this shirt on because it is too small
저는 그 동안 공부를 했어요 = I couldn’t study during that time

~님 = adds respect to person’s position

Common Usages:
교수님 = professor
아버님 = a polite way to refer to one’s father
어머님 = a polite way to refer to one’s mother
따님 = a polite way to refer to one’s daughter
아드님 = a polite way to refer to one’s son
고객님 = customer
부모님 = parents

Example:
아버님과 어머님은 영어로 말씀을 못하셔요= My mother and father in law can’t speak English

The specific words for father- and mother-in-law are 장인 and 장모님, respectively. However, it is common to politely refer to them as “father” and “mother” using ~님 as shown in the example above.

또는 = or

Notes: This is usually used between two nouns or certain adverbs (usually a place or time), not between two verbs or adjectives. In order to see how to say “or” with verbs and adjectives, see Lesson 55.

Example: 중학교 또는 고등학교를 다녀요? = Do you go to middle school or high school?

~세 = years old

Common Usages:
18세 미만 = under 18 years of age
18세 이상 = over 18 years of age

Example:
그 가게에 18 미만은 못 들어가요 = Those under 18 years of age can’t enter that store

= surely/definitely

Example:
우리는 이번에 이겨야 돼요 = We must win this time!

물론 = of course

Often used as an adverb, for example:
물론 와도 돼요! = Of course you can come!

It can also be used as a noun (predicated with 이다). For example:
돈을 줄 것은 물론이죠 = Of course I will give you the money

그 동안 = during that time/meanwhile

Example:
저는 그 동안 공부를 못 했어요 = I couldn’t study during that time

이상 = more than

Common Usages:
열여덟 살 이상 = over 18 years of age
더 이상 = anymore
두 명 이상 = more than two people

Notes: By putting 이상 after a word (usually a time or a noun), it has the meaning of “more than X.” You can also put 더 before 이상 to make 더 이상 which is usually used in negative sentences to mean “anymore”:

Example:
저는 이 영화를 더 이상 보고 싶지 않아요 = I don’t want to watch this movie anymore
그 가게에 18 이상만 들어가도 돼요 = Only people older than 18 years can enter that store

For help memorizing these words, try using our Memrise tool.

 

Introduction

Until now, you have not learned how to say “I am good at something/I do something well” or “I am bad at something/I do something poorly.” In this lesson, you will learn about the words 잘하다 (to do something well) and 못하다 (to do something poorly). 못하다 is very hard to understand perfectly, so I will ease you in by introducing you to 잘하다 first.
.

 

잘하다: To do something well

The main meaning of 잘하다 is “to do something well.” To use 잘하다, simply place a noun in a sentence with 잘하다 as the verb.

This is easy to do with 하다 verbs (for example, 수영하다 and 공부하다) because to make a noun all you need to do is remove 하다 from those words. I discuss making non-하다 verbs into nouns in Lesson 26, but the principal is the same for any noun form of a verb.  All you need to do is:

나는 (noun form of verb)을/를 잘하다. For example:

나는 수영을 잘해 = I am good at swimming
저 학생은 공부를 잘해 = That student studies well
우리 애기는 말을 잘해요 = Our baby speaks well
저는 야구를 잘해요 = I play baseball well

잘하다 is a verb, but now we need to talk about “잘,” which is an adverb.

 

잘: Well

Just like 잘하다, you can use the word 잘 in sentences to indicate that one does something well. Usually, when you remove 하다 from a word, the word without 하다 becomes a noun. In this case, removing 하다 from 잘 does not make 잘 a noun. Instead, it is an adverb. The only reason this is important is so that you know that you can use 잘 in sentences just like other adverbs, in this case to mean “(to do something) well.” It is essentially the same as “잘하다,” but used slightly different. For example:

그 주인은 고객님들을 잘 대우해요 = That owner treats the customers well
나는 어젯밤에 잘 잤어 = I slept well last night

When I first learned about 잘하다 and 잘, I was trying to understand if these two sentences were the same:

나는 공부를 잘해 = I study well
나는 잘 공부해 = I study well

The answer: essentially, but not entirely.

The difference is so subtle that you don’t really need to worry about it. However, when I learned this, I worried about it, so I think maybe you should worry about it too. The reason I say “don’t worry about it” is because now when I speak I can’t really distinguish the difference in meaning. The only way I could tell the difference is referring back to my old notes from 5 years ago. Nonetheless, there is a subtle difference:

나는 공부를 잘한다 = I study well, or
“나는 (noun)을 잘한다” means that, in general, your ability to do something is good. However,

나는 잘 공부한다 = I study well, or
“나는 잘 (verb)다” means that you can study well because of some situation (for example, maybe you have a test coming up and you are studying really hard because of that situation).

But really, don’t get too caught up on the difference between the two. Especially since sometimes they look and sound almost exactly the same. If you separated 공부 and 하다 in the second example, you would get:

나는 공부를 잘 해 = I study well, which sounds (and almost looks) exactly the same as:
나는 공부를 잘해 = I study well

Anyways, don’t worry about it too much.

 

You already know the word 잘생기다 means “handsome.” That word is actually 잘 and 생기다 put together. 생기다 has a lot of meanings, but putting 잘 and 생기다 together, it sort of means “to come out well.” The opposite is true for 못생기다 (to be ugly).

 

Always remember to not translate directly from English to Korean, as there are so many things that are not 100% the same in both languages. For example, in English, we would never say “I don’t know well,” but in Korean, it is very common to say:

저는 잘 모르겠어요* = I don’t know (well)
*Also notice that the future tense 모르다 is used here. Even though it is in the present, 모르겠다 is used very commonly to indicate that you don’t know something – Even though it directly translates to “I will not know.”

 

.

.

못하다: To do something poorly

Alright, this is where it gets hard. 잘하다 was easy. Let’s do this step by step.

First of all, 못하다 has the opposite meaning of 잘하다 – so it can be used to indicate that one generally is poor at something. For example:

나는 수영을 못해 = I am bad at swimming
저 학생은 공부를 못해 = That student does not study well

The difference between 못하다 and 못 is the same as the difference between 잘하다 and 잘. When you say a sentence like “나는 수영을 못해” it means that in general your ability to swim is bad. Because of this, you need to be careful about the type of verb you are using in this situation. For example, you couldn’t really use the verb “to eat” in this situation, because that would mean that “in general, my ability to eat is bad.” Instead, what you would probably want to say is that “I CAN eat, but because of some situation, I can’t really eat right now.” That is when you need to use 못 instead of 못하다.

 

못: Poorly

Using 못하다 and understanding the meaning it creates is quite simple, especially if you can understand how 잘하다 is used. If you use the adverb 못, the meaning depends on the situation. Here are two simple examples we can look at:

저는 어제 못 잤어요
저는 어제 시험을 못 봤어요

This is where it gets unnecessarily confusing. Both of those sentences could have two meanings.

The first example:
저는 어제 못 잤어요 could mean either of the following:

I didn’t sleep well last night because of some situation, or
I didn’t sleep last night because something prevented me from sleeping

The second example:
저는 어제 시험을 못 봤어요 could mean either of the following:

I did poorly on the exam yesterday because of some situation, or
I didn’t write the exam yesterday because something prevented me from doing so

(My translations of “… One didn’t … because something prevented him/her from …” is often simply translated to “One couldn’t” or “One can’t.” These English terms are complex, and might be related to one not doing something because something prevented them or related to one’s ability. Another way to say “one couldn’t” or “one can’t” in Korean is by using ~ㄹ/을 수 없다 , which I discuss in Lesson 45).

Confusing? Let me say again. When you put 못 in a sentence, it can indicate that one does something poorly (or not well) OR that one does not do something because something prevented him/her from doing it. When it has the second meaning (“I didn’t do”) it is the result of some situation preventing you.

I want to take a minute to distinguish this from other negative sentences – specifically using 안 or ~지 않다 which you learned in Lesson 8. When you use 안 or ~지 않다, there is no deeper meaning that “something prevented you from doing the action.” For example, if I said:

저는 어제 시험을 안 봤어요, or
저는 어제 시험을 보지 않았어요

I am just saying that I didn’t write the exam yesterday – as if yesterday specifically was not the day that I was supposed to write the exam anyway (or something like that). Why would I write the exam when it is not the exam day? Of course I wouldn’t. Nothing is preventing me from writing the exam. It’s just not the day to write the exam. It’s also possible that I just didn’t do the exam because I didn’t want to. Either way, nothing is preventing me from doing it, I just didn’t do it.

However, if I say:

저는 어제 시험을 못 봤어요

It probably was the day to write the exam, but something prevented me from writing it. The thing that prevented me from writing it could be anything – it could have been that I had to go to a party with my wife, or it could of been that I had explosive diarrhea. Either way, both of those things (especially the latter) would prevent me from writing the exam.

——————–

In order to explain this further, I can explain a very common mistake that English speakers make when speaking Korean.

You don’t know how to ask questions yet (you’ll learn that in the next lesson), but imagine if somebody asks you

“Did you hear what I say?” (내 말을 들었어?)

English speakers learning Korean often respond with:

아니. 안 들었어.

However, if you say that, it’s kind of like you are specifically/purposely trying not to hear what the person said. Instead, you obviously can hear, but something prevented you from hearing the person. Maybe it was the loud TV, maybe it was the motorcycle driving by, or maybe it was your explosive diarrhea. Either way, something prevented you from hearing the person, so you should say:

아니. 못 들었어. = No, I didn’t (couldn’t) hear (you)

——————–

But, how can you distinguish the difference between somebody saying “I did something poorly” and “I didn’t do something”? There are three ways I can teach you:

 

 

잘 못
If you really want to stress that you do something poorly, you can include 잘 before 못. This specifically indicates that you “don’t do something well” and removes the ambiguity of “I didn’t”:

저는 어제 시험을 잘 못 봤어요 = I didn’t do good on the exam yesterday


The word being used

Sometimes, the word being used makes it clear which meaning you are trying to express. For example, if I said:

저는 어제 학교에 못 갔어요, This could have two meanings:

1) I didn’t go to school yesterday because of some situation
2) I didn’t go to school well yesterday

Which one of those two makes sense? In situations like this, it is easy to figure out which meaning is being used. Is it possible to “go somewhere well?” I don’t think so.

A perfect real-world example of this is something that my co-worker said to me once. The school I work at was in the process of buying my plane ticket back home, and it happened to be really expensive (like, really expensive). My co-worker always wanted to go to Canada, but when she heard how much my plane ticket was, she said to herself “캐나다에 못 가겠다.” The meaning of this sentence is not “she will go to Canada poorly” but rather “she can’t/won’t go to Canada because of some situation” (the ticket being too expensive).

 

Situation
Sometimes you just need to think about the context of the sentence to understand the meaning completely. For example, if you already knew for sure that a friend wrote the exam, and they later said “시험을 못 봤어요” – the sentence could only have one meaning (because you already knew that he/she wrote the exam).

 

Let’s look at some examples. If somebody said:
저는 밥을 못 먹어요

This could technically mean two things. It could mean:

  1. That the person can’t eat (well)
  2. That the person won’t eat because of some situation (most likely because he/she is full/doesn’t like that particular food, etc…)

In this case, the first possibility does not make sense because everybody (99.9% of the time) has the ability to eat. Therefore, this person is expressing that he/she is not going to eat because of some situation that is causing him/her to not want to eat.

Another example:
저는 답을 잘 못 썼어요

This sentence could really only mean one thing. Because of the use of “잘,” we know that the speaker is expressing that he/she did not do something well. Therefore, the sentence above translates to “I didn’t answer well.

There is still another way that 못/못하다 can be used to have yet another similar meaning to what has been described so far.

 

~지 못하다

One more thing about 못하다. Similar in structure to ~지 않다, you can also write ~지 못하다 to have the same meaning as 못. For example:

저는 어제 못 잤어요 AND
저는 어제 자지 못했어요 have the same meaning (I didn’t sleep [well] last night)

Remember that 못 and ~지 못하다 have the same meaning, which is subtly different than 를 못하다:

저는 어제 못 공부했어요 = I didn’t study well yesterday/I couldn’t study yesterday
저는 어제 공부하지 못했어요 = I didn’t study well yesterday/I couldn’t study yesterday
저는 공부를 못해요 = I am bad at studying


잘못

To make all of this even more confusing, the word 잘못 (with no space between 잘 and 못) has a different meaning. 잘못 means “mistake.” This word would normally be an easy word to deal with. However, it is more difficult than it needs to be because 잘못 and 잘 못 have two different meanings. 잘못 can be used like this:

그것은 제 잘못이었어요 = That was my fault/my mistake

Normally when you say “my _____” you use 저의 or 나의. However, some nouns prefer to have and before them instead of 저의/나의. 잘못 is one of these nouns. Another example is 제/내 생각 (instead of 저의/나의 생각) meaning “my thought/my opinion/what I think.

 

잘 and 못 with Comparatives and Superlatives

One final thing before I finish. In the previous lesson, you learned about using ~보다 and 가장/제일 to make comparative and superlative sentences. The concepts you learned in this lesson are very commonly alongside ~보다 or 가장/제일 in sentences to say that somebody can do something better/worse, or do something the best/worst. Some examples:

Comparative Sentences:
우리 아들은 친구들보다 축구를 더 잘해요 = Our (my) son is better than (his) friends at soccer
그 교수는 다른 교수들보다 수업을 더 잘해요 = That professor teaches classes better than other professors
저는 수영을 작년보다 더 잘해요 = I am better at swimming than last year

Superlative Sentences:
우리 아들은 축구를 가장 잘해요 = Our (my) son is the best at soccer
그 교수는 수업을 제일 잘해요 = That professor teaches classes the best (is the best at teaching classes)

저는 축구를 제일 못해요 = I play soccer the worst
저는 수영을 제일 못해요 = I swim the worst

Again, in most situations, these sentences would sound more natural with the use of other grammatical principles. For example, to say “I am the one who plays soccer the worst” or “Of all people, I play soccer the worst.” To be able to wrap your head around those sentences, you’ll need to read/understand the grammar taught in Lessons 26 and 33 respectively.

That’s it for this lesson!

Okay, I got it! Take me to the next lesson! Or,
Click here for a workbook to go along with this lesson.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to make a post on our Forum!