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Plurale Tantum in Finnish – Always Plural Words – Syntax and Semantics

“Plurale tantum” words are words that always appear in plural. However, for many of these, their meaning is singular. You have these words in many languages, such as in English “scissors” and “pants”, but there seems to be more plurale tantum in Finnish than in English.

In this article, we will first go over the semantics (the meaning) of these words, and then proceed to the syntax, aka the way these words are used in sentences. We have other articles about the same topic as well!

Table of Contents
  1. Semantics of words that are always plural
    1. Entities with two mirrored parts
    2. Entities with multiple parts that form a whole
    3. Possible on their own but often as a whole
    4. Events and gatherings
    5. Categories of plurale tantum words
  2. Syntax of plurale tantum nouns
    1. The subject of a regular sentence
    2. Exception: proper nouns
    3. Complement sentences
    4. Exception: plural entities
    5. Numbers as modifiers
  3. Relation between the singular and the plural
    1. Celebrations and events
    2. Collections of many
    3. Singular in compound words

1. Semantics of Words that are Always Plural

1.1. Entities with two mirrored parts

Plurale tantum words often are things that contain two parts that are mirrored. We could “cut” the two apart and end up with two very similar parts. The parts form a complete entity while together.

Finnish English Reasoning
housut pants two mirrored leg parts
sakset scissors the two metal blade parts can be screwed apart
silmälasit glasses the frame can be neatly divided into two mirrored parts
aivot brain the left and right hemisphere
kasvot face the left and right side of our face are mirrored

1.2. Entities with multiple parts that form a whole

Some things just naturally form a whole and appear as a whole in most situations. The whole isn’t always equally rigid, but it’s still easy to see how the thing is made up out of its parts.

Finnish English Reasoning
aakkoset alphabet the letters form a whole
ihmisoikeudet human rights the different rights form a whole
asevoimat armed forces the soldiers form a whole
varusteet equipment the many parts form a whole
kulut expenses the different costs form a whole

1.3. Possible on their own but often as a whole

These words naturally exist in groups. While they do have a singular which you can utilize, their plural is the default of the word.

Finnish English Reasoning
viinirypäleet grapes you can have one grape, but usually a bunch
murot cereal one grain of cereal doesn’t add up to much
portaat stairs the singular would mean one step
ajovalot headlights can just have one, but usually come in pairs

1.4. Events and Gatherings

Parties, ceremonies, events, gatherings and celebrations are often plural in Finnish. We could attribute this to the fact that many people participate in them. Or we could see them as events that originally lasted multiple days, or that have multiple phrases. These are not generally plural in English, but there are other languages with a similar pattern (eg. Russia, Estonia).

Finnish English Reasoning
häät wedding many guests, wedding ceremony and party
hautajaiset funeral many guests, obsequies, commemoration, interment
festivaalit festival many guests, many performers, many stages
bileet party many guests, many activities
vaalit elections many voters and candidates, many things happening

1.5. Categories of plurale tantum words

These are largely already visible in the previous chapter, but we can divide them more clearly still.

  • Clothes: eg. jeans, pants, leggings, overalls (more examples here)
  • Bodyparts: eg. sideburns, genitals, dentures, brain
  • Things: eg. stairs, pliers, tweezers, reins, covers
  • Equipment: eg. accessories, gadgetry, haberdashery
  • Information: eg. personal details, statistics, medical records
  • Place names: eg. United States, Netherlands, Shetland Islands, Maldives
  • Gatherings: parties, events, ceremonies (more examples here)
  • Organized forces: eg. troops, reinforcements, United Nations
  • Teams or organizations: eg. Helsingin Sanomat

Read more about the categories of Finnish plurale tantum words here!

2. Syntax of Plurale Tantum Words

2.1. The Subject of a Regular Sentence

Usually, when the subject is in the T-plural, the verb will appear in the third person plural he-form. Plurale tantum words are often no different (there’s a but coming below the next table).

Finnish English
Tikapuut nojaavat seinään. The ladder leans against the wall.
Aivot hidastuivat. The brain got slower.
Kuukautiset alkoivat eilen. Menstruation started yesterday.
Kasvot olivat pyöreät. The face was round.
Tarvikkeet putosivat alas. The equipment fell down.

2.2. Exception: Proper Nouns

As said above, usually, when the subject is in the T-plural, the verb will appear in the third person plural he-form. However, when a Finnish plurale tantum word is a proper noun, we will use the singular hän-form. Proper nouns are things like the name of a team, a country, a book, or a company.

Finnish English
Leijonat voitti pelin. The ice hockey team the Lions won the game.
Helsingin Sanomat haastatteli häntä. The newspaper Helsingin Sanomat interviewed her.
Yhdysvallat hyökkäsi Kiinaan. The United States attacked China.
Ruttokellot kertoo todentuntuisen tarinan. The book Ruttokellot tells a realistic story.
Maustetytöt esiintyy tänä iltana. The band Maustetytöt is performing tonight.
Merivoimat hyökkäsi. The marine forces attacked.

2.3. Complement Sentences with Plural Nouns

More interesting than above are the situations where a plurale tantum word is used as the subject in a complement sentence (predikatiivilause). The complement of a word that’s always plural will be in one of two cases: the T-plural or the plural partitive.

Generally, a complement sentence with a plural subject will have a plural partitive complement. For example, Tytöt ovat iloisia “The girls are happy” or Rakennukset ovat korkeita “The buildings are tall”.

When your subject is a plurale tantum word, however, you will generally use the T-plural for the complement as well.

Finnish English
Häät olivat stressaavat. The wedding was stressful.
Rintaliivit olivat epämukavat. The bra was unpleasant.
Tikapuut olivat pitkät. The ladder was long.
Aivot ovat veriset. The brain is bloody.
Hänen kasvot ovat pyöreät. Her face is round.

2.4. Exception: Plural Entities

We will use the plural partitive for the complement with these same words when we’re talking about more than one of the entity. We can talk about weddings in general, for example, rather than just “the wedding”, as in the example above. We can also talk about a specific set of these entities, such as with bras: either it’s bras in general, or a specific pile of bras.

Finnish English
Häät ovat aina stressaavia. Weddings are always stressful.
Rintaliivit olivat epämukavia. The bras were unpleasant.
Tikapuut olivat pitk. The ladders were long.
Aivot ovat verisiä. Brains are bloody.
Lasten kasvot ovat pyöreitä. Children’s faces are round.

2.5. Numbers as Modifying of a Plurale Tantum Word

Numbers will behave differently with words that are always plural. For example, häät “wedding” will become kolmet häät “three weddings”. The number will be inflected in the T-plural, rather than having the noun inflect with the number. This is also the case for the words monet “many” and ainoat “the only”.

Finnish English
Kahdet tikapuut ylsivät kattoon asti. Two ladders reacher the ceiling.
Omistan kolmet silmälasit. I own three pairs of glasses.
Hyllyllä on neljät rintaliivit. On the shelf are four bras.
Monet menot unohtuivat. Many expenditures were forgotten.
Nämä ovat ainoat kuulokkeeni. These are my only headphones.

3. Relation Between the Singular and Plural

Some of these plurale tantum words can appear in the singular as well. Sometimes both versions mean the same. For example, kärryt and kärry can both mean “cart”. In other cases, the singular and the plural have their own meaning.

3.1. Celebrations and Events

Consider the word syntymäpäivä. In the singular, it means “birthday”. In the plural, it refers to a birthday party rather than just the day. This pattern is common for many of the celebrations and events (though not all, eg. there is no such thing as “yksi hää”!).

Finnish English Finnish English
päivällinen dinner päivälliset dinner party
kutsu invitation kutsut party
messu mass (church) messut fair (event)
tanssi dance tanssit dance party

3.2. Collection of Many

Sometimes, when the singular exists, the plural refers to the collection of things included in the entity.

Finnish English Finnish English
porras step portaat stairs
hius hair hiukset (head of) hair
uutinen news item uutiset the news
ehto condition ehdot the terms
ratas cogwheel rattaat cart

3.3. Singular in Compound Words

Lastly, there is one situation where the singular of any plurale tantum word can be utilized: as the beginning of a compound word. For example, we will never talk about häät “wedding” in the singular, but hää- does appear in compound words such as hääjuhla “wedding party”, hääkakku “wedding cake” and häälahja “wedding present”.

Plural Compound Meaning
tikkaat tikasauto ladder truck
aterimet aterinsarja cutlery series
kasvot kasvohoito facial care
silmälasit silmälasikotelo eyeglass case
viikset viiksivaha mustache wax
housut housupuku pantsuit

Read more elsewhere

This article is part of a larger series on plurale tantum words. You can find some of the links below this article!
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