Intermediate1>Lesson8. Verb-던 : past-tense modifier for unfinished or repeated action

Today, we’re gonna look at the usages of Verb-던, which can be classified as a “past-tense modifier form” of verbs.

But then, how about Verb-ㄴ/은? (Lesson on verb’s modifier form : Haven’t we learned that Verb-ㄴ/은 is a past tense modifier form of verbs?

How are Verb-ㄴ/은 different from Verb-던? 

Let’s look at the following examples first.

내가 먹은 피자
내가 먹던 피자

The first one (내가 먹은 피자) means “the pizza I ate.” Here, 먹다(to eat) is a one-time action that happened in the past.

The second one (내가 먹던 피자) means one of the three things : 

  1. the pizza I was eating (but haven’t finished yet.)
  2. the pizza that I used to eat regularly (not anymore)
  3. the pizza that I’ve been eating regularly (up to this point)

So you can notice that Verb-던 has mainly three usages :

  1. An action that started in the past but hasn’t ended yet (action left undone) 
  2. An action that you used to do continuously/regularly/repeatedly (and not anymore)
  3. An action that you’ve been doing continuously/regularly/repeatedly (up to this point) => For this meaning, it’s more common to use Verb-는 (Verb’s present-tense modifier) instead.

From this, you can figure out the three possible meanings each following phrase can have. 

엄마가 읽던  

  1. the book that mom was reading (but she hasn’t finished it yet.)
  2. the book that mom used to read regularly
  3. the book that mom’s been reading regularly (=more commonly replaced with 엄마가 읽는 책)

아빠가 쓰던

  1. the pen that dad was using (but hasn’t finished using it yet)
  2. the pen that dad used to use regularly
  3. the pen that dad’s been using regularly (=more commonly replaced with 아빠가 쓰는 펜)

재미있게 보던 드라마

  1. the drama that I was enjoying watching (but hasn’t finished yet)
  2. the drama that I used to enjoy watching regularly
  3. the drama that I’ve been watching regularly (=more commonly replaced with 재미있게 보는 드라마)

So now we know all the possible meanings of Verb-던.

But how do we know which one?

There are two tips.

A. You can get the most obvious hint from the time adverb, or even the verb that the sentence ends with.

For example, in this phrase “엄마가 어제 읽던 책,” the adverb “어제(yesterday)” is added. From this, you know that the action “읽다(to read)” started yesterday. So it cannot mean “regularly.” The only possible meaning would have to be “the book that mom started reading yesterday, but hasn’t finished yet.” 

Let’s look at another example. “아빠가 자주 쓰던 펜을 주셨어요” < In this sentence, the adverb 자주(often) is added. So it would have to mean “regularly,” right? So the entire sentence would mean “My dad gave me the pen that he’s been using often.” 

Let’s do one more.

“주말마다 재미있게 보던 드라마가 끝났어요.” 

주말마다 means every weekend. The very phrase implies the regularity of the action. 끝나다 means “to end, finish.” So the sentence above cannot but mean “The drama that I had been watching every weekend has ended.”

B. You can also narrow down the meaning by paying attention to the nature of the verb that’s modified with -던.

Let’s look at the following six phrases:

1) 옆집에 살던 사람 (살다: to live + 던)

  1. the person who was living next door (but she hasn’t finished living yet) — this doesn’t make sense, since living is not an action that be left undone. So we can omit this.
  2. the person who used to live next door 
  3. the person who’s been living next door (=more commonly replaced with 옆집에 사는 사람, 옆집에 살고 있는 사람)

The possible meaning narrows down to 2) and 3).

예전에 옆집에 살던 사람한테 최근에 연락이 왔어요.
The person that used to live next door recently contacted me.

옆집에 살던 사람이 이사를 간대요. (=옆집에 사는 사람이 이사를 간대요.)
The person that’s been living next door said she will be moving out soon. 

2) 네가 입던 옷 (입다: to wear + 던)

  1. clothes you were putting on (but haven’t finished yet) — It’s quite unusual to refer to a piece of clothing that someone hasn’t even finished putting on. So we can leave this out.
  2. clothes that you used to wear regularly 
  3. clothes that you’ve been wearing regularly (=more commonly replaced with 네가 입는 옷)

Again, the possible meaning narrows down to 2) and 3).

이거 네가 자주 입던 옷 아니야?
Aren’t these clothes that you used to wear often?
Aren’t these clothes that you’ve been wearing often? 

You can be more clear which one of the above two it means, if there’s an adverb added that specifically points to a time in the past.

이거 네가 어렸을 때 자주 입던 옷 아니야? (어렸을 때: when one was young, during childhood)
Aren’t these clothes that you used to wear often when you were young?

3) 우리가 가던 식당 (가다: to go + 던)

  1. the restaurant we were going (but haven’t arrived yet) — Also quite unusual, so leave it out. If you are meaning to say “the restaurant that you were headed to but haven’t arrived,” it’s better to use “가고 있던 (present progressive + 던)” rather than “가던.”
  2. the restaurant we used to go regularly 
  3. the restaurant we’ve been going regularly (=more commonly replaced with 우리가 자주 가는 식당)


A: 오늘은 어디에서 저녁을 먹을까요? Where should we have dinner tonight?
B: 우리가 평소에 자주 가던 식당 어때요? How about the place we usually go often?
(평소에: at usual times, usually)

학생때 자주 가던 식당이 문을 닫았대요. I heard that the restaurant I used to go often in my student years closed down. 

4) 내가 다니던 학교 [다니다: to frequent a place (as a member of that place; usually used for work, school or somewhere that requires a membership)]

The nature of the verb 다니다 is that, just like 살다(to live), it’s not something that can be left undone. You either frequent a place, or not. So you can leave out the option “the school that I was frequenting (but left undone)” since that doesn’t make any sense at all.

Also, 다니던 is rarely used for somewhere you’re still visiting, so it means one meaning : somewhere I used to frequent.


여긴 내가 다니던 학교야. This is a school I used to attend. 
예전에 다니던 직장이 그리워요. I miss the job that I used to have. 

5) 내가 좋아하던 남자애

  1. the boy that I was liking (?) but haven’t finished? — doesn’t make any sense, so leave it out.
  2. the boy that I used to like (when you like something, it’s naturally continuous)
  3. the boy that I’ve liked up to this point (=more commonly replaced with 내가 좋아하는 남자애)

내가 좋아하던 남자애의 이름이 기억이 안나요. I can’t remember the name of a boy that I used to like.

6) 여기 있던 가방

  1. the bag that was being here but haven’t finished? — doesn’t make any sense at all, so leave it out.
  2. the bag that used to be here (when something is there, it is there continuously)
  3. the bag that has been here up to this point

여기 있던 가방 봤어요? Have you seen the bag that was here (not anymore, it’s gone)?
거기 있던 가방 보여요? Do you see the bag that’s been there all along?


Okay. So presumably, you’ve mastered the meaning of “-던.” Congratulations! 

In the next lesson, we’ll learn the difference between -던 and -았/었던. What!? There’s another form of -던, this time with verb’s past-tense conjugated form!?

Yes, but no need to feel intimidated. It’s not as tricky as you think!

See you in the next lesson!