Negating a verb using an auxiliary verb

English, like many other verbs, uses an invariable particle or adverb (not) to turn a positive verb into a negative verb. But Finnish does this differently, using an auxiliary verb for this task.

Present tense

In the present tense:

  • a positive verb ends in a suffix showing the number (singular / plural) and person (1st / 2nd / 3rd).
  • a negative verb contains a negative auxiliary verb (ei) ending in the suffix that shows the number and person. The suffixes are the same as for the positive verb (with a minor change in the 3rd person). Then the stem form of the main verb follows, with no suffix.

The following table shows how this works in the present tense.

Positive verbNegative verb
puhu.n
I speak
e.n puhu
I do not speak
puhu.t
you (singular) speak
e.t puhu
you (singular) do not speak
puhu.u (see note 2)
he / she (it) speaks
e.i puhu
he / she (it) does not speak
puhu.mme
we speak
e.mme puhu
we do not speak
puhu.tte
you (plural or polite) speak
e.tte puhu
you (plural or polite) do not speak
puhu.vat
they speak
e.i.vat puhu
they do not speak
Finnish negative verbs: present tense

Notes on the above table:

  1. To show how the forms are built up, I have put the inflectional suffixes in bold and separated them from the verb stem with a full stop (.). These devices do not appear in normal Finnish writing.
  2. For the 3rd person only, the suffixes showing number and person differ slightly between the positive form (attached to the main verb) and the negative form (attached to the negative auxiliary verb):
    • In the positive form, the 3rd person singular form (he/she/it) lengthens the last vowel of the stem. Thus, puhu- becomes puhuu. Similarly, mene- (go) becomes menee (goes). To highlight this lengthening, I have presented the second half of the lengthened vowel as a suffix (.u if the last vowel of the stem is u).
    • Somewhat similarly, in the negative of the 3rd person singular, the short vowel in the negative auxiliary verb e- becomes longer, but as a dipthong ei (rather than a pure long vowel, which would be ee as in menee). To highlight this lengthening, I have presented the .i as a suffix.
    • In the negative of the third person plural, the suffix -vat attaches to the long form used in the negative of the 3rd person singular (ei-), not to the short form (e-) used in all other cases.
  3. In Finnish, personal pronouns are not used routinely unless they are needed for emphasis. Thus, the table does not include them.
  4. The forms in the table are those for fairly formal written Finnish.
  5. The table does not illustrate ‘consonant gradation’: changes that occur in the stem of many words when some suffixes are added.

Perfect tense

The positive form of the perfect tense is made up of the present tense of the verb olla (be), followed by the -nut participle, which ends in the suffix:

  • -nut (for noun stems containing back vowels) and -nyt (for noun stems containing front vowels) in the singular
  • -neet in the plural

Following verb stems ending in l-, r- or s-, the -n of the -nut participle changes that letter, giving -lut/-lyt/leet, -rut/-ryt/-reet -or sut/-syt/-seet instead of -nut/-nyt/-neet. Example: the -nut participle of olla (be) is ollut (singular) / olleet (plural).

Examples of the positive form of the perfect:

  • olen puhunut (ole.n puhu.nut = I have spoken)
  • on puhunut (on puhu.nut  = he / she / it has spoken)
  • ovat puhunut(o.vat puhu.neet)  = they have spoken).

The negative of the perfect tense is formed with the negative auxiliary verb (ei) followed by the stem of the verb olla (ole) and then by the -nut participle. In other words, the positive auxiliary be (eg olen, on, ovat) is replaced by the corresponding negative form (eg en ole, ei ole, eivat ole) For example:

  • en ole puhunut (e.n ole puhu.nut = I have not spoken)
  • ei ole puhunut (e.i ole puhu.nut  = he / she / it has not spoken)
  • eivat ole puhuneet (e.ivat ole puhu.neet  = they have not speak).

Past tense

The formation of the negative is a little more complex in the past tense than in the present tense.  In the positive past tense, the past tense suffix -i follows the stem and precedes the person and number ending. Examples: puhin (puhu.i.n = I spoke); puhui ( puhu.i = he /she / it spoke); puhuivat (puhu.i.vat = they spoke). Unlike in the present tense, no vowel lengthening occurs in the 3rd person singular.

The negative of the past tense is formed with the present tense of the negative auxiliary verb ei and the -nut participle. Examples:

  • en puhunut (e.n puhu.nut = I did not speak)
  • ei puhunut (e.i puhu.nut  = he / she / it did not speak)
  • eivat puhuneet(e.ivat puhu.neet  = they did not speak).

I find the negative past tense slightly confusing. This compound form contains a participle and so it looks more like the perfect than like the past (simple) past tense, which doesn’t contain a participle.

Other tenses

The negative forms of other tenses have a similar structure, with an inflected form of the negative auxiliary and then either a stem or a participle (or both) of the main verb. Here is a table with examples of some of them:

TensePositiveNegative
Pluperfectolin puhuten ollut puhunut
Conditionalpuhuisinen puhuisi
Imperative (informal singular)puhuälä puhu
Imperative (plural or formal)puhukaaälkää puhuko
Present passivepuhutaanei puhuta
Past passivepuhuttiinei puhutta
Finnish: negative in other tenses

The table shows only 1st person forms for the pluperfect and conditional and 2nd person forms for the imperative. The forms for the passive do not specify person and number.

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