Finnish for busy people

Finnish Reference Grammar Books

In this article, you can find a comparison of the biggest Finnish reference grammar books.

Table of Contents
  1. Which Finnish reference grammar books are available?
  2. Issues with writing this comparison
  3. My comparison of Finnish reference grammar books
    1. Overall tone and look of the books
    2. Each book’s approach to grammar
    3. Grammar topics covered in the books
    4. Use of examples sentences
    5. Inclusion of spoken language
  4. Overview of the books in tables
  5. Additional notes about the books
    1. Fred Karlsson’s essential and comprehensive grammars
    2. Leila White’s reference grammar books
    3. Vuokko Heikura’s Lessons on Finnish grammar in Finnish and English
    4. Iso suomen kielioppi (ISK and VISK)

1. Which Finnish Reference Grammar Books are Available?

Your search for a good grammar book for Finnish is likely to bring up the following alternatives:

  1. Fred Karlsson – Finnish: An Essential Grammar
  2. Fred Karlsson – Finnish: A Comprehensive Grammar
  3. Fred Karlsson – Suomen peruskielioppi
  4. Leila White – A Grammar Book of Finnish
  5. Leila White – Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille
  6. Vuokko Heikura – Lessons on Finnish Grammar in English (sold out)
  7. Vuokko Heikura – Lessons on Finnish Grammar in Finnish
  8. Jukka K. Korpela – Handbook of Finnish
  9. SKS – Iso suomen kielioppi

2. Issues with Writing this Comparison

This article is meant to shed some light on the differences and similarities between these books. However, there are several catches here that have made this issue harder for me to write about.

For one, Fred Karlsson, Leila White and Vuokko Heikura have all been present in the grammar book scene for decades. This means that they have produced many different editions of their books and/or have had their books translated into other languages. However, often these different versions are so similar to one another that it doesn’t make sense to discuss them all separately in this comparison.

  • Fred Karlsson’s Essential Grammar and Suomen peruskielioppi are essentially the same book in different languages. They are less detailed versions of his Comprehensive Grammar. I’m using the Comprehensive grammar in my comparison. Read more about Karlsson’s books below.
  • Leila White’s A Grammar Book of Finnish is the English translation of Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille. It’s identical in every way. I’m using the English version in my comparison. Read more about Leila White’s work below.
  • Vuokko Heikura’s Lessons on Finnish grammar is currently only for sale in Finnish, though a version exists in English as well. Its translated contents are identical. I’m using the English version to compare.
  • I’m including Iso suomen kielioppi below in a separate section because it’s not really comparable with the other reference books on this page. Read more about ISK below.

3. My Comparison of Finnish Reference Grammar Books

Included in this comparison are:

  1. Fred Karlsson‘s Finnish: A Comprehensive Grammar
  2. Leila White‘s A Grammar Book of Finnish
  3. Vuokko Heikura‘s Lessons on Finnish Grammar in English
  4. Jukka K. Korpela‘s Handbook of Finnish

I’m referring to these books and their writers by their last name in the sections below.

3.1. Overall Tone and Look of the Books

Karlsson‘s book is the most formal, theoretic and objective. Korpela and White are slightly less formal, but they stick to the general objective idea of a reference grammar. Heikura is different from all of those. She uses a more conversational style of text. Heikura appears as “I” in the text, and addresses the reader as “you”. She explains the grammar to you as a knowledgeable but no-nonsense friend would do.

Of these four, I think White‘s book is the most pleasant to look at. It gives a well-organized impression, with examples displayed in columns and tables. The usage of empty space makes it feel less crowded than, for example, Heikura‘s book. Heikura has a lot of running text throughout the book. The examples don’t stand out very well and the chapters blend into one another, giving it a crowded feel. Korpela has “chapters” running from 1 to 231, which also do a poor job at dividing the book into sizable chunks. Tables and example sentences are far in between.

Karlsson‘s book is riddled with tables and columns, which I generally find a good thing in grammar books. There has been an attempt to keep the page-count of this book low with a smaller font and not leaving much empty space in between sections. This bothers me to some extent because it means that a table can start on one page and continue on the next, rather than having the whole thing on one page.

3.2. Each Book’s Approach to Grammar

Karlsson‘s approach to grammar is very analytical. He pays close attention to morphemes and stems, and marks those consistently throughout the whole book. Of the books I’ve included here, he uses the most linguistical terms. The grammar is shown in the running text, in tables, columns and examples. This book’s grammar approach is great for linguists and analytically-minded people, but a little bit dense for casual learners. Having example sentences written out as “Setälä-n juhla>va virka-an astu>minen” can be quite the shock.

White approaches each grammar topic through examples and tables. She doesn’t explain the grammar in running text very often. There is a much smaller amount of text in the form of paragraphs. Morphemes and stems are only sometimes marked in the grammar explanations. White has limited the use of grammar terms to only those you will really need as a language learner. This book contains key grammar you will need to know to become proficient in Finnish.

Heikura‘s grammar explanations are mainly based on running text, which fits together with the more conversational style she uses. There are very few tables displaying grammar in this book. Pure grammar terms are avoided in this book whenever possible. The book focuses on key grammar aspects only.

Korpela uses grammar terms when needed, but his book is definitely the least overwhelming of the bunch. The grammar is often explained in running text, but the language used in these paragraph is more approachable. You can think of Korpela as the book that tells you the most casual information about Finnish. It explains things that are often only glazed over in the other grammar books, and addresses them systematically. If you want to learn about Finnish, rather than learn Finnish, this book is perfect. This is not to say that you can’t actually use it to learn Finnish!

3.3. Grammar Topics Covered in the Books

Karlsson‘ guide is of course the most comprehensive: it addresses the phonology, morphology and syntax in great detail and very analytically. It’s hard to pinpoint any grammar element that isn’t present at all in this book. If you’d learn every element present in this book, you would definitely be moving on the C1-C2 level of Finnish grammar knowledge. The book includes a section on the grammar of colloquial Finnish as well as on the formation (derivation) of words.

White covers all the very common grammar elements which language learners will need to actively learn. It’s a practical grammar, meant to introduce you to the grammar needed for speaking, understanding and reading ordinary standard Finnish. It includes some explanations to some grammar elements that are common mostly in formal written Finnish. Working through this book thoroughly would give you a strong B1.2 level of grammar at the very least. Grammar topics missing from this book include information on the pronunciation and phonology of Finnish and spoken language grammar.

Heikura covers the same topics as White, but presents them in an unusual order at times (eg. the essive and abessive appear before the location cases). Pronunciation and derivation are included, but spoken language is missing. Heikura isn’t as systematic as White, which means you will find small tidbits here and there that seem unrelated to the topic at hand. This means that you will find some interesting small details about Finnish, but also might not get a full view of the grammar the way White presents it.

Korpela‘s coverage of Finnish touches on special features that the other grammars on this page largely ignore. It looks in more detail at what makes Finnish unique: which consonant and vowel sounds change in different types of forms, contexts and dialects, how loanwords get adapted into Finnish and how they inflect, etc. Korpela‘s coverage of Finnish grammar is definitely not complete: it lacks some key grammar you can find in the other reference grammars. However, its strength is in the details and the way it gives you a more complete picture of Finnish as a system.

3.4. Use of Examples sentences in the Books

Karlsson‘s example sentences are plentiful and generally useful. They’re not solely meant to display the grammar: they are often actually relevant to a language learner. Karlsson‘s analytical mind shines through in all the examples, as he has marked the different stems and morphemes in all the examples through the book. This consistency can either be helpful (if you’re analytically minded) or overwhelming (if you’re a casual learner). All examples are translated to English and accompanied by the spoken language version.

White‘s example sentences are also useful to the language learner. They have all been translated to English. There are fewer of them than in Karlsson’s book, but still a nice amount. There are markings in the examples, highlighting the grammar elements or morphemes.

Heikura‘s book includes example words, but very few example sentences. The example sentences included are generally just there to display a specific grammar element. They’re generally not as useful as the examples of White and Karlsson. This is also the case for Korpela‘s book, which has barely any example sentences at all. When included, they’re there solely to show you a grammar element.

3.5. Inclusion of Spoken Language in the Books

Karlsson‘s approach to spoken language is by far my favorite: it’s everywhere! All the example sentences in the book are accompanied by a spoken language version (eg. Täällä on pien-i-ä laps-i-a is accompanied by [*tääl on pienii lapsii]). I really love how these are present from the get-go and how they allow you to analyze spoken language while also reading about Finnish grammar. Karlsson has also included a chapter near the end of the book about colloquial language. This chapter covers both grammar elements that are specific to spoken Finnish and descriptions of how sounds are omitted or modified when spoken.

Korpela describes the typical differences between spoken and written Finnish in a separate section of his book. In addition to general spoken Finnish, he also takes a closer look at the different types of dialects within Finland. This is valuable information which is rare in most grammar books!

Heikura neglects spoken language almost completely. She only includes spoken language in the section about the passive (eg. me mennään) and in the small introduction about how Finnish is pronounced. White does even less: only the passive is included.

4. Overview of the Books in Tables

Below, I’ve attempted to add the information of each of these Finnish reference grammar books into a table. This will hopefully allow you to compare these books.

Fred Karlsson: Finnish – A Comprehensive Grammar
Name of the book Finnish: A Comprehensive Grammar
Author(s) Fred Karlsson
Publisher Routledge
Most recent edition 2018
Aesthetics Small font, many things on each page, a little overwhelming
Language(s) used English
Tone used Analytical, objective, theoretic, some parts include a lot of running text
Scope Comprehensive, detailed, covering all common elements, and many rarer elements
Theory Explained in a very analytical way, close attention to morphemes and stems
Markings Various symbols show the parts of each word all through the book (great for analysis, can be overwhelming)
Examples A lot of examples, useful example sentences, translations provided
Spoken language Spoken language forms are paired up with the standard Finnish forms, and also addressed in a separate chapter
Currently for sale Hardcover, paperback and ebook
Other versions Finnish: An Essential Grammar (read comparison)
Buy the book Routledge (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Amazon (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Adlibris (paperback)
Booky (paperback)
Additional information: Finnish: A Comprehensive Grammar

This comprehensive reference grammar book is chockful of both grammar explanations and example sentences with translations. I think the strength of this book compared to other grammar books lays in those examples: you’re rarely left with just the explanation.

 

Karlsson approaches language through stems and analyzing language elements, so you’ll find plenty of examples like “Me-i-llä ei ole puna=viini-ä“, which has all the morphemes marked out. I think many students would find this type of analysis useful. Another strong suit of this book is that it doesn’t shy away from spoken language. The example sentence I just mentioned is accompanied by “Meil ei o(o)p punaviinii”, which is the spoken language alternative.

 

I have this Comprehensive Grammar both as a paperback and an ebook and – at least for me – the ebook is more useful. After all, a reference grammar book is usually meant to be used when you’ve run into a specific grammar topic. It’s very handy to be able to do ctrl+F in the PDF in order to find what you are looking for. This is especially useful because the book is a little bit chaotic with its many different types of tables, wordlists and longer sections of text. Having it on your shelf, however, is also very nice.

Fred Karlsson: Finnish – An Essential Grammar
Name of the book Finnish: An Essential Grammar
Author(s) Fred Karlsson
Publisher Routledge Essential Grammars
Most recent edition 2017
Aesthetics Small font, many things on each page, a little overwhelming
Language(s) used English
Tone used Analytical, objective, theoretic, some parts include a lot of running text
Scope Contains key grammar topics required to become fluent, rare elements of Finnish grammar left out
Theory Explained in an analytical way
Markings Limited, current grammar topic underlined in examples
Examples A lot of examples, useful example sentences, translations provided
Spoken language Addressed in one chapter at the back of the book
Currently for sale Hardcover, paperback and ebook
Buy the book Routledge (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Amazon (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Adlibris (paperback)
Booky (paperback)
Other versions – Suomen peruskielioppi (the Finnish translation)
– Finnish: A comprehensive grammar (read comparison)
Heikura – Lessons on Finnish grammar in English
Name of book Lessons on Finnish Grammar in English
Author(s) Vuokko Heikura
Publisher VEA Books
Most recent edition 2013
Aesthetics Not incredibly organized, but clear enough
Language(s) used English
Tone used Conversational, personal, subjective, mainly running text
Scope Fairly good coverage of key grammar elements, fairly in depth
Theory Not very formal or analytic, grammar terms avoided whenever possible
Markings Limited, current grammar topic underlined in examples
Examples Examples meant to demonstrate the grammar, often not very useful as such, very few examples in the form of sentences
Spoken language No spoken language except occasional mentions (such as the me-passive and the usage of se instead of hän)
Currently for sale No, only the Finnish and Russian edition are currently available
Other versions Translated: Lessons on Finnish grammar in Finnish / Russian  (read more in section 5.3 below)
Additional information: Lessons on Finnish Grammar in English

This is a reference grammar, so topics covered are the ortography, phonology, morphology and syntax of Finnish. It’s a nice book to leaf through, it contains many examples and their translations and it has been divided into clear chapters.

 

In contrast with Fred Karlsson’s grammar book, this book is more “conversational”. Heikura includes, for example, her opinions on how common certain things are. The language used to explain things is also more colloquial rather than strictly informational. I’d say that Karlsson is more useful if you want to look up grammar and get your information in a no-nonsense kind of way with lots of examples. Heikura is more suitable if you want to read the whole book from start to finish.

 

This book is available completely in Finnish, and in Russian as well! The contents of the three versions of this book are identical. Unfortunately, it seems the English version is no longer being printed, so you’ll have to rely on your local library if you live in Finland. Some online sources mention that there is an ebook version available, but I haven’t been able to find a source where this is sold either. The Finnish version of this book is still in print!

 

There are 14 pages of “exercises” included, but they’re very theoretical (eg. “inflect these words in all the Finnish cases”). I’m not sure how much you can get out of those, as there’s no space provided to write your answers and the solutions aren’t included.

Leila White – A Grammar book of Finnish
Name of book A Grammar Book of Finnish
Author(s) Leila White
Publisher Finn Lectura
Most recent edition 2019
Aesthetics Clear, spaced-out, tables, columns, examples
Language(s) used English
Tone used Objective, most things explained in tables and examples, not a lot of running text
Scope Good coverage of key grammar elements, contains the grammar needed communication
Theory Theoretic but less analytic, attempt to keep grammar terms to a minimum
Markings Limited, no separation of stem and morphemes in the example sentences
Examples Examples sentences are practical and useful, translated
Spoken language Strong focus on ordinary standard Finnish, only the me-passive discussed
Currently for sale Paperback
Buy the book Finn LecturaAdlibrisAmazon
Other versions Translated: Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille (read more in section 5.2 below)
Leila White – Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille
Name of book Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille
Author(s) Leila White
Publisher Finn Lectura
Most recent edition 2019
Aesthetics Clear, spaced-out, tables, columns, examples
Language(s) used Finnish
Tone used Objective, most things explained in tables and examples, not a lot of running text
Scope Good coverage of key grammar elements, contains the grammar needed communication
Theory Theoretic but less analytic, attempt to keep grammar terms to a minimum
Markings Limited, no separation of stem and morphemes in the example sentences
Examples Examples sentences are practical and useful, translated
Spoken language Strong focus on ordinary standard Finnish, only the me-passive discussed
Currently for sale Paperback
Buy the book Finn LecturaAdlibrisBooky
Other versions Translated: A Grammar book of Finnish (read more in section 5.2 below)
Jukka K. Korpela – Handbook of Finnish
Name of the Book Handbook of Finnish
Author(s) Jukka K. Korpela
Publisher Finn Lectura
Most recent edition 2015
Aesthetics Clear, spaced-out, tables, columns, examples
Language(s) used English
Aesthetics Short chapters, easy to read, but not very organized, chapters numbered 1-223
Language English
Tone used Objective, analytic but approachable, descriptive rather than prescriptive
Scope Great source to get an idea of how Finnish works as a whole, limited coverage of key grammar elements, but lots of interesting tidbits you won’t find explained in many other places
Theory Abundance of grammar terms, but also explained for layman
Markings Limited, no separation of stem and morphemes in the example sentences
Examples Nearly no example sentences, generally just example words
Spoken language Explained separately, also included are the characteristics of the different dialects
Currently for sale Ebook: AmazonEllibs

5. Additional Notes about the Books

5.1. Fred Karlsson’s Grammar Books

Fred Karlsson has published two Finnish reference grammar books: “Finnish – An Essential Grammar” and  “Finnish – A Comprehensive Grammar”. In addition, there’s the (original) Finnish-only version of the Essential Grammar available as well, named Suomen peruskielioppi.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had access to the most recent, 3rd edition, of the Essential Grammar. I’m hesitant to draw any conclusions based on the 2nd edition, because I’m inclined to think that these issues have been addressed the the 3rd edition. The Finnish version of this book is based on the 2nd edition as well.

What do these books have in common?

The contents of the Essential and the Comprehensive versions of this book are in many parts identical. At first glance, they might just seem to be the same book with a different name. Both books are chock-full with interesting grammar and clear explanations, and most of the running text is in fact the same in both books. The order in which some elements are addressed differs in places, but more often than not, the text and tables of different sections have stayed the same despite the reorganization.

What is different?

However, the Comprehensive Grammar – as the name implies – goes more in-depth and includes rare grammar details that have been left out of the essential grammar. While comparing the two, I don’t think that this difference is so crucial that it should sway your decision as to which one to buy.

There is one difference that – in my opinion – makes the Comprehensive Grammar superior to (the 2nd edition of) the Essential Grammar. The inclusion of spoken language in every single part of the comprehensive guide is commendable. For example, an sentence such as Täällä on pien-i-ä laps-i-a will be accompanied by [*tääl on pienii lapsii], which is the spoken version. However, it is entirely possible that this issue has been addressed in the 3rd edition of the Essential Grammar.

New Features Included in the 3rd Edition of An Essential Grammar:

  • pronunciation guide
  • increased attention to the key characteristics of present-day colloquial Finnish.
  • thorough descriptions of morphology (word structure) and syntax (sentence structure)
  • clear rules and an abundance of concrete examples, from both written and colloquial Finnish
  • updated vocabulary in the examples
  • an effective new scheme for detecting the morphological structure of any word form
  • subject index.

If you’re looking into buying a reference grammar book written entirely in Finnish, you currently can choose between Fred Karlsson‘s, Leila White‘s or Vuokko Heikura‘s book. This is a difficult choice. The Finnish versions of Karlsson and White are pretty similar. Both cover key Finnish grammar topics, though Karlsson has an extra ten page section on spoken language. Karlsson has more examples, but it also has more sections that consist of just plain paragraphs of text. White avoids this by breaking up each section and showing things in tables and diagrams instead. Karlsson does have many pretty tables and diagrams too.

I have only compared Karlsson and White in this section, because they’re so similar. However, there’s a third option: Heikura has also published a Finnish version of her reference grammar. In the sections below, you can find a comparison of White’s and Heikura’s Finnish-only books.

5.2. Leila White’s Reference Grammar Books

Leila White originally wrote her grammar book in Finnish, and then had it translated. The contents of the book A Grammar Book of Finnish match up perfectly with Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille. As such, any opinions I’ve given above about the English book also count for the original Finnish version.

Both versions are still for sale, so you can choose freely whether you’d rather read this book in English or Finnish. One challenge of the Finnish-only version is of course that understanding the grammar explanations may be hard. They are not simplified, but the style of writing is clear and approachable. The difficulty level of the Finnish used in the original book requires you to have at least level A2.2 in Finnish when you start using it.

In this book, you’re left to your own devices with the example sentences (which are translated in Heikura’s Finnish book). The examples are useful but the lack of explanations could be frustrating to the reader.

5.3. Vuokko Heikura’s Lessons on Finnish grammar in Finnish and English

Heikura originally wrote this book in English. The Finnish translation matches up perfectly with the English version. Thus, any of my explanations above about the English book also hold true for the Finnish translation. However, the English version is no longer getting printed! You can probably find it in your local library if you live in Finland.

Vuokko writes these books from a personal perspective: she addresses the reader as “you” and talks about herself as “I”. This might make this book’s grammar explanations slightly easier to understand when reading the Finnish version. It will still require you to have a language proficiency of at least level A2.2. Another point in favor of Heikura’s Finnish edition (in contrast with White’s Finnish edition) is that – while all the explanations are in Finnish, the examples are still translated to English.

5.4. Iso suomen kielioppi (ISK and VISK)

Iso suomen kielioppi is a reference grammar compilation by Auli Hakulinen, Maria Vilkuna, Riitta Korhonen, Vesa Koivisto, Tarja Riitta Heinonen and Irja Alho. This book is immense: 1698 pages of very small printed text.

Of course it’s some kind of a status symbol to have this book on your bookshelf, but you don’t really need it. While the book is often referred to as ISK, it’s also available online as VISK (V for verkko). This means that you can find anything that’s in the book also online. Naturally, the online version has a search function and links from one page to another. As such, it’s much easier to use the online version than to leaf through the giant book.

ISK is a very theoretic book, written completely in Finnish. It’s been written by linguists for linguists. I recommend you use this link and pick a grammar topic listed on the left of that page. Try to read one of the pages there to see if this book is for you. Even if it would be, the existence of the precious VISK kind of makes the printed version obsolete.

Links to the books

Here are some links to all the Finnish reference grammar books mentioned in this article!

That’s all for this comparison of Finnish reference grammar books. Hopefully this allows you to make a more informed decision when considering which Finnish reference grammar to buy.

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Cassandra

I have Karlsson’s essential grammar and it seems comprehensive grammar is significantly more useful. I don’t see puhukieli in the essential grammar.

Raymond

Thank you for all the research. I have both Karlsson’s and White’s books and as someone just being my Finnish studies, I was looking for some guidance on which I should be using so thank you.