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For a small research project, I am looking at the negation in Finnish. I don’t actually speak Finnish, but I understand that there is a special auxiliary verb – the negation verb – which is used to negate statements. It is inflected for person and number. When the negation verb is used on a non-past indicative verb, that verb takes a special form, instead of the usual inflection for person and number. So, if I understand correctly, Otan sen (‘I take it’) becomes En ota sitä (‘I don’t take it’) instead of #En ota-n sitä. (Sen becomes sitä because the direct object of a negated verb takes the partitive, right?)

Now, my question is how personal pronouns enter into this. In particular, is there any difference between the following?

(1) En ota sitä - vs - Minä en ota sitä

Are both grammatically correct? Is ‘minä’ redundant but acceptable? Are both equally natural? Do they mean the same? What if we move to a different person or a different tense? (I hope I got the sample sentences right.)

(2) Ei ota sitä - vs - Hän ei ota sitä

(3) En ottanut sitä - vs - Minä en ottanut sitä

If the answer is that there is no difference, or only a small difference, are there any contexts where the two come apart? What about e.g. ‘Jane doesn’t like Henry and neither do I / and I don’t either’. (I’ll spare us all the embarrassment of a bad translation.) Would it be possible / necessary, to say minä in the second part of the sentence? Similarly, would it be possible / necessary to say hän in e.g. ‘Every time a customer orders a steak, he doesn’t finish it’?

I should stress that I am primarily interested in cases where the pronoun is impossible (if there are any), and less interested in ones where the pronoun is obligatory (if any).

Lastly, if I want to say ‘John knows that I didn’t take it’, would the following be correct?

(4a) John tietää, etten ottanut sitä.

If so, is etten an inflected form of että (‘that’), and is it correct that there is no negation verb present? Could one add it, and could one also add minä? In other words, what’s the status of the following?

(4b) John tietää, etten en ottanut sitä.

(4c) John tietää, etten minä ottanut sitä.

(4d) John tietää, etten minä en ottanut sitä.

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Native Finnish speaker here.

Your recap of the use of the negation verb is correct, as far as it goes. It's also well documented at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ei#Verb_2

(1) & (3) Both alternatives are correct and natural, but there is a difference. When the pronoun minä is included, there is an emphasis on the subject. It's not me who takes it or I'm not taking it (with an implied or explicit continuation such as give it to someone else or someone else will).

As an aside, in informal everyday speech the personal pronouns are omitted much less often, but instead of the formal pronouns the informal, shortened versions are used mostly (for example https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/m%C3%A4).

The above applies to the first and second person pronouns, and neither the tense nor the mood has any effect. However ...

(2) The third person pronouns can never be omitted, so Hän ei ota sitä is the only correct alternative.

Jane doesn’t like Henry and neither do I / and I don’t either. Here the subject pronoun I is definitely emphasized and can't be omitted from the Finnish translation, which could be something like Jane ei pidä Henrystä, enkä myöskään minä. Here instead of ja (and) we use the suffix -kä tagged on to en to give enkä. ... ja en myöskään minä would be understandable but slightly unnatural. ... ja minä en myöskään is possible if we want to give extra emphasis to minä. But omitting minä would be an error here. And as always, the third person pronouns can't be omitted.

(4a) is correct. Etten is a contraction of että + en https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ettei so the negation verb is actually present. John tietää, että en ottanut sitä and John tietää, että minä en ottanut sitä are also correct.

(4b) & (4d) are incorrect because there are two negation verbs.

(4c) is correct, but the word order feels a teensy bit unnatural to me. I would prefer John tietää, etten minä sitä ottanut, and minä gets extra emphasis here.

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  • Fantastic – Thanks! Is there a (simple) explanation for why the 3rd person can’t be omitted? – MarkOxford Mar 5 '18 at 9:22
  • Are you able to say what myöskään means? – OmarL Mar 5 '18 at 12:54
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    @MarkOxford I'm not aware of one, but as a matter of fact, there is one special case where even the third person pronouns can be omitted, it didn't occur to me earlier. See finnishsyntax.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/… – mlj Mar 5 '18 at 15:48
  • @Wilson (Ei) myöskään means (not) either en.wiktionary.org/wiki/my%C3%B6sk%C3%A4%C3%A4n – mlj Mar 5 '18 at 15:51
  • Are there any rules about being consistent with your use of the pronoun? Suppose I want to say: ‘I don’t like the book that I bought’, which I think (hope) translates to: Minä en pidä kirjaa, jonka (minä) ostin. Could you drop just one mina, or would you have to either keep or drop both? (When I say 'rules' I mean both grammar rules and rules about what sounds natural.) – MarkOxford Mar 5 '18 at 17:01
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There's a list of publications on the 'pro-drop'-ness of Finnish (though it's not 'true pro-drop', but that's part of the conclusion), long story short:

  • Using the subject - when it's grammatically implied is -'grammatical but redundant'; eg, "(minä) en ota sitä"
  • Dropping the subject when there's grammatical ambiguity - it 'ungrammatical' (very simplified)

Note - that in Finnish - this has nothing (afiak) specific to negation, it's just the negation happens to be the 'main (conjugated) verb' in such sentences, I believe it behaves the same as any other 'main verb'.

A good summery article I know about this is :

'Empty Subjects in Finnish and Hebrew / Vainikka and Levy , 1995

Followed by later articles quoting it. Ignoring the issue of whether 'null subject' is the simplest way to model this - these articles present field collected examples, and some model to produce more valid exemplars.

And I guess a book that might over it nicely is (if any)

Leila White / A Grammar Book of Finnish / Isbn 9789517921466

If you're out to do a study about this - I would recommend looking at one of the corpora of spoken Finnish

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  • This is very helpful – thanks! If you know the answer, could you comment on the sentences in (4)? Are they all equally correct? In (4d), minä seems particularly redundant as we already have etten and en to mark the 1st person. – MarkOxford Mar 4 '18 at 11:51

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