Finnish for busy people

Imperfect Perfect Plusquamperfect – When to Use?

The Finnish imperfect, perfect and plusquamperfect tense all refer to the past, but are used in different past-related contexts. In this article, I want to go over the differences between the three. I’m going to color-code the entire article, which might be helpful to some learners and distracting to others. I feel it helps the tenses stand out.

Table of Contents
  1. In Short
  2. The Imperfect and the Perfect Tense
    1. Specifity of the occurrence
    2. Completion of the action
    3. Relevancy at the time of speaking
    4. Witnessing an action
    5. Having experienced something
  3. The Imperfect and the Plusquamperfect
    1. Two consecutive past events
    2. Expressing second-hand knowledge
  4. Further Links

1. In Short

We could condense this whole issue by saying that:

  • The imperfect tense is used to express that something that happened in the past is completely finished.
  • The perfect tense is used to express something that happened in the past but still is relevant or continues past today.
  • The plusquamperfect is used to express that one thing happened further in the past than another thing.

This is of course a generalization, which skimps over all the smaller differences. Let’s take a closer look at these tenses below!

2. The Imperfect and the Perfect Tense

2.1. Specificity of the Occurrence

The first way in which the Finnish imperfect and perfect tense differ from each other is in how specific you are about when something happened.

This is a general rule that is taught in many immigrant courses. You will use the imperfect tense when you’re saying exactly when something is happening. The perfect tense will be used when something happened in the past but we’re not specifying an exact time.

Imperfect Perfect
Kävin aamulla suihkussa. Olen käynyt suihkussa.
Matkustin lapsena paljon. Olen matkustanut paljon.
Ostimme eilen auton. Olen ostanut auton.

Below, you can find additional rules that can add other meanings to these same sentences.

2.2. Completion of the Action

The degree of completion will also influence our choice between the imperfect and the perfect tense. If something is completely finished, you will use the imperfect tense. When something is still going on, you need the perfect tense.

This is especially noticeable when explaining how long you’ve lived in Finland for. If you’re currently living in Finland, you will say e.g. Olen asunut Suomessa kaksi vuotta. This implies that you will be continuing to live in Finland for an unspecified amount of time. In contrast, Asuin Suomessa kaksi vuotta means that you lived in Finland before, but have since moved to another country.

Imperfect Perfect
Asuin Suomessa vuoden. Olen asunut Suomessa vuoden.
Maalasin talon. Olen maalannut talon.
Odotin häntä pitkään. Olen odottanut häntä pitkään.

2.3. Relevancy at the Time of Speaking

Generally, the perfect tense is also used for situations where the past action is relevant to the time of speaking. This can also be seen in the examples above, as these usages often stack. Another example would be “Myymälään on tullut uusia vaatteita” (New clothes have arrived at the store). While the clothes have come already and the action is finished, it is relevant at the time of speaking because, now, people can buy these new clothes that have come.

The same could be said of “Muusikko on kuollut” (The musician has died) and “Muusikko kuoli” (The musician died). The imperfect explains that something took place in the past. The perfect mentions the death in a way that’s still relevant in the present rather than just stating that the death occurred.

Imperfect Perfect
Kävin jo syömässä. Olen jo käynyt syömässä.
Kirkko rakennettiin 1400-luvulla. Kirkko on rakennettu 1400-luvulla.
Muusikko kuoli viime vuonna. Muusikko on kuollut viime vuonna.

2.4. Witnessing the Action

The perfect tense is also used to express that something happened, but that we were not there to see it. If we say “Yöllä on satanut lunta” (It has snowed at night), this means that we woke up to snow in our back yard. We weren’t there to see it fall, but we see the end result.

The imperfect Yöllä satoi lunta” (It snowed at night) can either mean that we were there to see it happening, or be part of a wider story where we tell what has happened in the past.

2.5. Having Experienced Something

Especially in questions (“Oletko koskaan?“), the perfect tense can be related to actions you might have experienced in your lifetime. Have you eaten insects, ridden a camel, bungee-jumped off a cliff? The point of these sentences is not when you did them (although you could offer more information in a follow-up statement). Using the perfect tense just explains that you’ve experienced something.

Imperfect Perfect
Kävitkö USA:ssa? Oletko koskaan käynyt USA:ssa?
Söin hyönteisiä. Olen syönyt hyönteisiä.
Söin poronkäristystä Lapissa. Olen syönyt poronkäristystä.

3. The Imperfect and the Plusquamperfect

3.1. Two Consecutive Past Events

The imperfect and the plusquamperfect often appear in the same sentence. In these cases, the plusquamperfect refers to an event in the past, and the imperfect is used to express that something happened after that point in time.

Consider for example the sentence Lähdin lenkille, kun olin syönytIt translates as “I went for a walk when I had eaten”. The present tense and the perfect tense can be used in a similar pairing: Lähden lenkille, kun olen syönyt. This translated to “I will go on a walk when I have eaten”. In other words, this present+perfect tense pairing refers to the future. The imperfect+plusquamperfect tense pairing refers to the past.

3.2. Expressing Second-Hand Knowledge

We can use the imperfect and the plusquamperfect as a pair to express that we heard something from someone. This can be handy as a way to express that some information doesn’t come straight from us.

For example, the sentence “Mies kertoi, että hän oli syönyt saippuaa.” tells us that the man told us that he had eaten soap. The speaker wasn’t present to see this event unfold. Another example could be “Isoäiti oli nähnyt haaveen.” which means “grandmother had seen a ghost”. This expresses that she told us that she had seen one.

This use of the plusquamperfect is the most common in combination with the imperfect tense. In these sentences, the imperfect part will be referring to a conversation, for example:

  • Hän kertoi, että hän oli käynyt hammaslääkärissä. “He said that he had been to the dentist.”
  • Hän mainitsi, että Matti oli voittanut lotossa. “He mentioned that Matti had won in the lottery.”
  • Hän sanoi, että Oulussa oli jo satanut lunta. “He said that it had already snowed in Oulu.”

4. Further Links

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Why using genitive in “Ostimme eilen auton.”?

Inge (admin)

Hei! That’s one of the Finnish object rules: when you’re talking about ONE, WHOLE THING (I buy the whole car), you need to use the genetive for the object.

Oleg Lapshin

Thank you! Why do finns say “Hän tuli jo” (she has come already) when 1) the person is still here 2) she came e.g. about an hour ago? My tutor told me, that it is just this way.

Inge (admin)

Hmmm, I would say it stresses that you saw it happening, ie. that it’s not second-hand information. It also seems to stress that the arrival happened in the past. Likely YOU are the one who’s late, or at least late to catch on that the other person is already there.

Hän on jo tullut” somehow feels like it requires a continuation like “…ja odottaa sinua salongissa.

Ask your tutor what they think of those ideas! I’m mostly just “feeling it out”, this isn’t exactly factual information.

Oleg Lapshin

I will ask. It was told to me several times by a secretary that a patient had already arrived at our medical ward. Thanks!