Grammar Series -(이)나, Part 1

Part 1 of the -(이)나 grammar series will cover the usage of listing two or more things. To return to the series index click here.

In this usage -(이)나 means “or”. This is the most common use of the particle and the least complicated to learn. It isn’t without challenge to learn because unlike English, Korean has more than one way of saying or.

Lets look at the first set of examples:

담배 술은 건강에 무척 해롭다Cigarettes or alcohol is bad for your health
케이크 빵 먹을래?Do you want some cake or bread?
포장지는 주로 종이 비닐로 만든다Packaging paper is usually made with paper or plastic.
주말에 책을 칡거나 영화를 볼 거예요On the weekend I’m going to read a book or watch a movie.
바쁘거나 가방이 무거울 때 택시를 타세요Take the taxi if you’re busy or your bag is heavy.

나 in all of these sentence means or. This seems simple enough but there is actually quite something important to take notice of here.

In these examples both options are lumped together as one and the same, and it doesn’t matter which one it is. So to speak both options are on the same side of the equation.

However sometimes when you give two options you want to contrast or compare them. And sometimes they may be mutually exclusive. In this case you need to use 아니면 instead, or 아니면 in addition to 나/거나. See the second set of examples illustrating this difference:

엄마가 더 좋아 아니면 아빠가 더 좋아? Do you like mum more or dad more?
내일 아니면 모레 시험 성적이 나올 거예요The test scores will come out tomorrow, or if not, the day after tomorrow.
그가 잊어버렸거나 아니면 안 오기로 한 모양이다He either forgot or isn’t coming by the looks of it
너 입 다물거나 아니면 나가Shut your mouth or get out
버터(나) 아니면 마가린 사주세요Buy some butter or margarine
캐이크(나) 아니면 빵 먹을래?Do you want some cake or bread?
돈 많은 사람한테 줘야 돼 아니면 먼저 오는 사람한테 줘야 돼?Should you give it to the people who have a lot of money, or the people who came first?

In these examples, the two options aren’t always on one side of the equation. On one side of the spectrum a question like 엄마가 더 좋아 아빠가 더 좋아 is creating polarizing two sides of the equation. Here 나 can’t be used. If you say 엄마나 아바가 둘 다 좋지 then the question becomes completely different and is translated to “you like both mum and dad don’t you?”

On the other side of the spectrum 나 and 아니면 doesn’t have a very big difference and either can be used without a big meaning change. 캐이크(나) 아니면 빵 먹을래 can use either or both. With 아니면 there is slightly more emphasis on each option, but the distinction isn’t that important here.

Lets look at one more example in detail: 내일 아니면 모레 시험 성적이 나올 거예요. If it had been 내일이나 모레 it would mean either or and place no priority on anything. But saying 내일 아니면 모레 creates contrast between today or tomorrow.


When you want to say “or” in the sense that the options don’t really matter, then 나 is the pick. When you want to say “or” in the sense that the options matter and are contrasted or compared against each other, 아니면 should be used. Feeling which one to use will take some time, especially when both are used in the same sentence.

Click here to go on to part 2 of the (이)나 grammar series.


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