Word order and basic noun cases

Much to learn you still have.

- Yoda

Yoda can speak his sentences different orders, and we still understand. The same is true for Finnish. Along with flexible word order comes some noun cases (endings/conjugations) which help mark the part of speech of words: the nominative, genitive(accusative), and partitive. Word order and the basic noun cases are the subject of this chapter.

We aren’t yet going to study how to actually convert words into these noun cases, so in this chapter we will just discuss how word order relates to these cases, and the basic structure of Finnish sentences. We are doing this now because it is easy and fun, and helps to set the stage for what comes next. In future chapters, you will learn how to actually apply the genitive and partitive to different words.

Word order

Yoda can change word order and we still understand it. “The pen is on the table” is correct, but “on the table is the pen” sounds wrong, but we can still understand it. “The cat ate the apple” is correct, but “the apple ate the cat” means something else and is clearly wrong.

These word order matters in the second, since the cat and the apple are identically grammatically (both our direct nouns). However, the pen is a different grammatically from on the table. Because they are marked differently, the order can be changed without too much confusion.

Since Finnish has flexible word order, there must be something to convey the difference between the cat and the apple in the first sentence. In Finnish, the answer is that they are put into different grammatical cases, the nominative and genitive(accusative).

Parts of speech

First, a diversion to grammar of English. Hopefully you remember at least the idea that sentences are made of “subject - verb - object” basic components. If you can break sentences down into these components, you can easily figure out what cases to use most of the time. You should think about this at least a little bit, because Finnish isn’t a one-to-one mapping to English.

  • In the sentence I ate the apple, I is the subject - the thing that performs an action. ate is the verb - the action. the apple is the direct object: it has an action done to it. The verb to eat intrinsically can be applied to a direct object.
  • In the sentence I ate in the kitchen, I is the subject, ate is the verb, and in the kitchen is an indirect object. You are not acting on the kitchen, it is just some sort of modifier which describes how the action happens.

In the first of these, the verb to eat is used as a transitive verb and in the second, it is used intransitively. Transitive means the verb takes direct object. Intransitive means that the verb does not take a direct object. This distinction, and the difference between subject and object, end up being critical to understand the Finnish nominative and genitive.

More examples:

  • I search for you: intransitive
  • I search you: transitive, searching your body for something. Check wiktionary to see these definitions: you see the definitions tagged by transitive or intransitive use. You see the same things when you search the definition of Finnish verbs.

The Finnish cases: Nominative, genitive, and partitive

The nominative is the basic form of words in Finnish, what you will be able to look up in a dictionary, and you use when discussing words. Nominative is used in the subject of the sentence

The genitive is formed by adding -n to the end of the words. (Not directly - there are various rules to adding -n, which you will learn about in the next chapter. But not all words ending in -n are genitive.). Genitive is used for direct objects of sentences.

The partitive is formed by adding -a or -ta (usually) to the end of the word (again, with various rules you will learn later). The partitive can be used for either the subject, direct object, or indirect object.

There are a lot of other noun cases, -sta, -lle, etc. These are all used for indirect objects, and if you see a word in one of these cases, it is never a direct object.

So, there it is. Finnish has a flexible word order, and the nominative and genitive are directly allow that.

Sentence structure

Finnish has flexible word order, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Instead, the word order can mean either emphasis or be a part of the meaning (really, consider that these are the same things).

In the simple case, the word order can imply an emphasis:

  • Minä syön omenan: “I(nominative,subject) eat apple(genitive,direct object)”. This is the typical order.
  • Omenan minä syön: “apple(genitive,direct object) I(nominative,subject) eat”. This emphasizes that the apple is being eaten, the fact that I am doing it is less important.

It can also have a more direct meaning. For example, in Suomen Mestari 1, you get an example like this:

  • Kynä on pyödällä (The pen is on the table). This implies that a pen (which is already known), and it is on the table.
  • Pyödällä on kynä (On table is pen. This is called an “existential clause”, which means that you are introducing a previously unknown pen.

Note that these last examples are sentences have a subject and indirect object, not subject and direct object - but the point still holds. Also, see how the emphasis can become a part of the meaning.

In the Suomen mestari series of books, you frequently see lessons which introduce a certain type of sentence. This is some combination of word order and noun cases. These are more profound than they first appear: it’s not just joining some words you know into a sentence, but trying to teach you that a certain combination of word order and noun cases conveys a specific meaning. Unfortunately, they only write in Finnish, you don’t pick up this type of meaning when you are just taking the course.

The Partitive

We haven’t yet discussed the partitive. Above, we said that it can be used for either the subject or direct object, so how does that work?

The partitive can take different meanings. The name itself has “part” in it, so they all somehow relate to a part of a whole. Below are the most common uses. The most important ones (take precedence) are first:

  • Negation: Anything which is in the negative or you are saying does not exist is always in the partitive. (Remember: if something doesn’t exist, there is no whole. You are saying that no part of any possibilities exist)
  • Some verbs and phrases just intrinsically take partitive. The verb rakastaa (to love: rakastan sinua: “I love you(partitive)). Wishing is always in the partitive: hyvää päivää (wishing someone “good day”). (Clever people will realize this is the source of this site’s name.)
  • Numbers: kaksi omenaa (“two apples(partitive)”). Actually quite similar in use to English plural with numbers: yksi omena (“one apple(nomivative)”), kaksi omenaa (“two apples(partitive)” ), nolla omenaa (“zero apples(partitive)”), etc.
  • Part of something, mass (uncountable) nouns. You are not referring to all of something specific (“all the water in a cup”), but part of something (“water, some of that within the world”).
  • It can roughly be seen as the genitive/nominative represents the definite articles like the, and the partitive can be used for indefinite articles like a, some, etc.

This is not a complete list - others mostly fit in the concepts above, there are better sources for that information, and you will learn them as time goes on.

In many cases, multiple options will be grammatically correct. It is best to stop and think, what what are the different options. Are any of them wrong for your meaning? Then, if multiple of them could be correct, which gets you closest to the actual meaning you want. At this stage, the difference between “the” and “a” becomes relevant.

More rules

If a verb is transitive, then the verb may have a direct object always. If a verb is intransitive, the verb can’t have a direct object, so can’t be used with the genitive.

  • Transitive verbs: syödä (to eat: you eat something)
  • Intransitive verbs: TODO.
  • Both: eat(syödä)

The other noun cases (“locative cases”, -Vn, -ss, -sta, -lle, -lla, -lta) are always indirect objects only, never a direct object.

Furthermore, the different noun cases are important. Some verbs are always used with a particular noun case. Perhaps more precisely: some verbs have a meaning which only come with a certain noun case (e.g. -sta). Some verbs have different meanings depending on what noun cases are used. For example, in English, “I reached the house” means a different thing from TODO”. The verb pitää is a good example of this. On the wiktionary page, you see meanings that differ depending if what comes after it is in elative (-ssa), partitive (-a,ta), genitive (-n), infinitive, etc. The verb päästä is another. The different definitions are matched to different cases: illative is -Vn, elative is -sta, one form is with the infinitive of a verb, and so on.

Not every sentence follows the “subject - verb - object” form. For example, sinä olet kaunis (you(nominative) are beautiful(nomivative)), “you” and “beautiful” are compliments (refer to the same thing). The second word kaunis is nominative here because you is indivisible. This all goes down to more details about sentence structure. We aren’t going deep into this topic in this work, but just realize that the different noun cases matter and relate to sentence structure and meaning.

“Forced clauses” (“I have to X”) are a different pattern. They are written Minun täytyy opiskella (“I(genitive) have to study(infinitive)”). Note that what is the subject in English (I) is genitive here. This is an example of an alternative sentence structure, and you need to remember it either by “subject genitive” or “some twisted structure where subject and object are reversed.”

Don’t worry! You learn all of these very slowly, and you can make sense of it if you know what you are looking for (which you know now). And this is no different from other languages which have the same variations in meaning, except they are marked by different words, prepositions, etc. You have to accept that Finnish is synthetic, and uses word endings instead of separate words.


But this isn’t the whole story: actually, the case for direct objects is called the accusative, but it is identical to the genitive for the most part - except for the personal pronouns I=minä, etc. But for simplicity, most places just call it the genitive and then have an exception for the personal pronouns. (There is an analogy in English: the personal pronouns “I”, “he”, “she”, “we”, … have a different form in a direct object: “me”, “him”, “her”, “us”). In fact, this is quite direct analogy for this use of a direct object marker in English.

All of these cases can be in either singular or plural. You learn this later.

In the next chapter, you will learn how to actually make these noun cases for real words.