I’m going to start this tutorial off with great news: it’s really, really easy.
The Korean writing system is a highly logical one, governed by simple, straightforward rules. Learn those rules, and you’ll be able to master it. By the end of this article, you should be able to write anything in Hangul.
Types of Strokes
Korean alphabets are made up of strokes, and there are 8 types of them. Note that all of them must be written from 1) top to bottom; 2) left to right.
*Note that the top-to-bottom rule takes precedence over the left-to-right rule, which is why the left diagonal stroke is written from right to left instead of left to right, because writing it from left to right would mean going against the top-to-bottom rule.
**The Upright ‘L’ and Upside Down ‘L’ are meant to be written in one single stroke, without pause. This counts as one stroke.
For each alphabet, there is a specific order for the strokes to be written in, but contrary to what you might have heard, you do not need to memorise them one by one. It adheres to the same rules – top to bottom, left to right – and an additional one: outside in.
For the purpose of illustration, I’ll be using a calligraphy-style font, because it’s easier to see where one stroke ends and where another begins with this font type.
As you can see, ㄷ is made up of two strokes – the horizontal stroke, and the upright ‘L’. You write it from top to bottom – the horizontal stroke first, and then the ‘L’.
Like ㄷ, ㄹ is written from top to bottom. It’s made up of 3 strokes – the upside down ‘L’, the horizontal stroke, and the upright ‘L’.
ㅁ is also a top-down structure, although it isn’t as obvious. You start with the top of the box, working from left to right – the vertical stroke first, followed by the upside down ‘L’ – before closing it off with a horizontal stroke at the bottom.
Like ㅁ, ㅂ looks like a box (and therefore a top-down structure), only the top is open and there’s something (the horizontal stroke) in it. Following the top-to-bottom rule, we’ll have to work on the top of the box first, which looks like an ‘H’. It’s made up of 3 strokes – a horizontal stroke framed by a vertical one on either side.
Remember the ‘outside in’ rule? This means you have to set up the frame before adding what is within, so write the two vertical strokes first, and then the horizontal stroke in the middle.
Now that you’re done with the top part of the box, seal it off with a horizontal stroke at the bottom. Voilà!
Unlike all of consonants above, ㅅ has a left-right structure, as it is made of two diagonal strokes in opposite direction. Naturally, the one on the left must be written before the one on the right.
The horizontal stroke alone forms the top of the structure, and is written first. The bottom of the structure consists of two diagonal strokes in opposite direction – like ㅅ, the one on the left is written before the one on the right.
Also a top-down structure, ㅎ is pretty straightforward. Short dash, horizontal stroke, then the circle.
A pretty straightforward top-down structure – the upside down ‘L’, followed by a horizontal stroke.
Remember the outside-in rule – ㄷ, the frame, must be written first, before the horizontal stroke can be added in.
Literally ㅈ with a short dash on top. The short dash, being located at the top, must be written before the rest of alphabet.
A three-tiered top-down structure – a horizontal stroke on top, followed by two short vertical strokes (located on the same level/tier), and another horizontal stroke that functions as the base.
ㄱ, ㄴ and ㅇ are single-stroke alphabets, so you don’t have to worry about stroke orders when writing them.
The double consonants are easy, as all of them are of the left-right structure (because they’re essentially two single consonants lined up side by side). Write the one on the left first, then the one on the right.
The vowels adhere to the same rules. The ones with the left-right structure require you to start from the left and work your way towards the right; and the ones with the top-down structure require you to start at the top and work your way down. An easy way to tell them apart is to look for the ㅇ – if it’s on the left, then the structure is left-right; if it’s at the top, then it’s top-down.
Here are a couple of examples:
Divide it into 3 columns, start with the circle on the left and work your way right. The two short dashes both precede the vertical stroke on the right (going by a left-right flow), so they must be written before it. The vowel 예 follows a similar order, with an additional vertical stroke at the end.
Also a left-right structure. Start with the circle, then move on to the ‘H’ on the right. When writing the ‘H’, start on the left and work your way towards the right – vertical stroke, short dash, then vertical stroke again. This is a bit of an anomaly as it does not conform to the ‘outside-in’ rule.
As indicated by the circle at the top, this is a top-down structure. It is divided into 3 tiers, with the two short vertical strokes on the same level.
These compound vowels may appear to adhere to the top-down structure at first glance, but they are actually left-right structures, as they are essentially two simple vowels placed side by side.
Treat them as you would two separate alphabets, like so:
Start with the 우 on the left, which is written in the top-down structure – the circle at the top first, followed by the horizontal stroke and the vertical stroke. Once you’re done, move on to the 어 on the right (the ㅇ is missing because it’s been replaced by the 우 on the left). Since 어 is a left-right structure (similar to 여, as demonstrated earlier), you’ll have to write the short dash on the left first, and then the vertical stroke on the right.
There are only 3 types of structures to a Korean word – left-right, top-down, and a combination of both. It is dependent on the vowel that forms the backbone of the word (note that a word cannot contain more than 1 vowel). For example, if you’re writing a word with the vowel 유 (top-down), you know you’ll have to write it in the top-down structure.
Likewise, if it’s a vowel with the left-right structure, like 아, you will have to follow the left-right rule. If there’s an extra consonant at the bottom, then it’ll be a combination of left-right and top-down structures, like this:
As indicated in the diagram, the order in which the alphabets are written adheres to 2 rules – the same rules that govern their stroke order: 1) top to bottom; 2) left to right. Note that when a consonant precedes a vowel, it always replaces the ㅇ in the vowel.
Putting It All Together
To put it simply, these are the steps to writing a Korean word:
Determine whether it should be written in the left-right or top-down structure, or a combination of both. This depends on the vowel – whether it’s left-right or top-down.
I’m using the word 한 as an example, which is written in the combination structure.
Identify the sequence in which the alphabets are to be written.
Write the alphabets one by one, following these 3 rules to make sure they are done in the correct stroke order:
- Top to bottom.
- Left to right.
- Outside in.
ㅎ : Top-down. The short dash first, followed by the horizontal stroke, then the circle.
아: Left-right. The vertical stroke first, followed by the short dash.
*ㅇ is replaced by the preceding consonant, ㅎ.
ㄴ: A single-stroke alphabet (no stroke order).
And that’s pretty much all you need to know in order to master the Korean writing system! I hope you found this guide helpful, and if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below – I’ll make sure to get back to you as soon as possible.
Billy from GO! Billy Korean actually has a very interesting video on why stroke order is important. Hint: it affects much more than just writing. 😉 Feel free to check it out here!