Forms & Environments of the Imperative
Table of Contents
- I. English & French Imperative Forms
- II. The French “Third-(and First-)Person Imperative”
- III. What Happened to the S?
- IV. When the Subjunctive Commands
- V. Pronoun Objects, Anyone?
- VI. About a Verb: Aller
- VII. About Another Verb: Tenir
- VIII. Yet Other Ways to Give Commands in French
I. English & French Imperative Forms
A. English Commands
English has only one form of the imperative, corresponding to the “you” form of the simple present, only without the pronoun subject:
|You come here.||Come here!|
|You eat your soup.||Eat your soup!|
|You finish your homework.||Finish your homework!|
Strictly speaking, it is not the “you” form of the simple present that (minus the “you”) gets used for this purpose, but the base or infinitive form of the verb. Only one verb, “to be,” reveals this fact:
|You are reasonable.||Be reasonable!|
For commands (or wishes) involving other persons, we use “let” 1 plus an infinitive construction (the personal pronoun is in the objective case, and the infinitive has no “to” introducing it):
|I am your sweetheart.||Let me be your sweetheart.|
|We pray.||Let us pray.|
|He sings for his supper.||Let him sing for his supper.|
|They eat cake.||Let them eat cake.|
B. French Commands
French has three imperative forms for our one, and they really are 2 the present forms minus the pronoun subject:
|Tu finis ta soupe.
(You [singular] finish your soup.)
|Finis ta soupe!
(Finish your soup!)
|Nous finissons notre soupe.
(We finish our soup.)
|Finissons notre soupe!
(Let’s finish our soup!)
|Vous finissez votre soupe.
(You [plural] finish your soup.)
|Finissez votre soupe!
(Finish your soupe!)
II. The French “Third-(and First-)Person Imperative”
French thus has three times as many imperative forms as English; but what about the remaining persons (1st, 3rd, and 6th)? Must they remain command-less?
|1st???||1st pl.: Finissons!|
|2nd: Finis!||2nd pl.: Finissez!|
For these remaining persons, French does have a construction corresponding (somewhat) to our “Let” phrases. It is made up of an initial Que followed by the subject and the personal verb in the subjunctive mood.
|Georges admet la vérité.
(George admits the truth.)
|Que Georges admette la vérité!
(Let George admit the truth!)
|Ils vont en France.
(They go to France.)
|Qu’ils aillent en France!
(Let them go to France!)
|J’arrive à temps.
(I arrive in time.)
|Que j’arrive à temps!
(Let me OR May I arrive in time!)
The third-person construction is quite common; the 1st-person construction less so. Here is an alexandrine, excellent for memorizing, that contains one of each:
Ô que ma quille éclate! Ô que j’aille à la mer!
Ah, let my keel burst (free?)! Ah, let me go to the sea!– Arthur Rimbaud, Le Bateau ivre
Whence the Third-Person Imperative?
The French Third-Person Imperative is reminiscent of the jussive use of the subjunctive in Latin.
Set Expressions of This Kind, With & Without the Que
- Vive le roi! (Long live the king!)
- Puissé-je…! (May I…!)
- Qu’à Dieu ne plaise! (God forbid! [Literally: May it not please God!])
- Dieu vous entende! (May God hear you!)
- Qu’à cela ne tienne! (Don’t let that stop you! [Literally: Don’t let it stick at that!])
III. What Happened to the S?
A. When S Disappears from the 2nd Person Singular
With –er verbs, the command form corresponding to tu loses the final s:
|Tu arrêtes de m’embêter.
(You stop bothering me.)
|Arrête de m’embêter!
(Stop bothering me!)
The same happens with verbs that are conjugated like an –er verb in the present:
|Cueillir-type verbs: Tu cueilles les roses de la vie. (Thou pluckest the roses of life.)||Cueille les roses de la vie!
(Pluck the roses of life!) 3
|Ouvrir-type verbs: Tu ouvres la boîte et tu souffres les conséquences. (You open the box and you suffer the consequences.)||Ouvre la boîte, et souffre les conséquences!
(Open the box, and suffer the consequences!)
Aller is not an –er verb, except occasionally; nevertheless, the tu imperative loses its s:
|Tu vas au super-marché.
(You go to the supermarket.)
|Va au supermarché!
(Go to the supermarket!)
B. And When It Suddenly Returns
When the tu imperative form has an y or an en directly following it (see Part V below), the s returns (for euphony, to avoid the hated hiatus).
|Achète un kilo de cerises!
(Buy a kilo of cherries!)
|Achètes-en un kilo!
(Buy a kilo [of them]!)
|Va, au nom de pénitence, à l’église plutôt qu’ailleurs!
(Go, in the name of penance, to church rather than any other place!)
|Vas-y, au nom de pénitence!
(Go there, in the name of penance!)
The Latin Imperative and the Disappearing S
The Latin second-person singular imperative was distinguished from the ordinary present form by the absence of an s. This was the case for all verbs.
The following list shows the difference between 2nd-person plural indicative present form and the corresponding imperative form
- portas (you carry) > porta! (carry!)
- doces (you teach) > doce! (teach!)
- mittis (you send) > mitte! (put!)
- finis (you finish) > fini! (finish!)
- is (you go) > i (go!)
In Old French (9th century to 1300) and on through Middle French (14th through 16th centuries), the same pattern was used: the command form of the second-personal singular had no s.
- Voi! (See!) = Modern French Vois!
- Met! (Put!) = Modern French Mets!
- Fai! (Do!) = Modern French Fais!
- Dor! (Sleep!) = Modern French Dors!
We see a relic of this practice in the forms voilà, voici. The voi element is the old command form of voir.
In Modern French, the sign of imperative has become the absence of the pronoun subject, not the absence of the final s (which is not pronounced even when written), and so the final s was re-instituted for most verbs.
IV. When the Subjunctive Commands
A few “irregular” but very common verbs use the subjunctive as the basis for the imperative forms. These are:
|Verb||Subjunctive Base||2nd person singular||1st person plural||2nd person plural|
|avoir||ai-, ay- [e]||aie 4||ayons||ayez|
|être||soi-, soy- [swɑ]||sois 5||soyons||soyez|
|savoir||sach- [saʃ]||sache 4||sachons||sachez|
|vouloir||veuill- [vœj]||(—) 6||(—) 6||veuillez 7|
These subjunctive-based imperatives are a relic of volitive uses of the subjunctive mood in Latin.
V. Pronoun Objects, Anyone?
A. Ordinary (i.e., Non-Pronominal) Verbs & Pronoun Objects
1. Positive Command
Pronoun objects that normally go before the personal verb are placed after the affirmative imperative. me and te are replaced by the emphatic forms moi and toi. 8 Order is always: direct object first, 9 then indirect object, if both are present, thus:
|Direct Object||Indirect Object||Adverbial||Pronouns|
The complete run-down of all possible combinations of the first and second columns is:
- le-moi, le-toi, le-lui, le-nous, le-vous, le-leur
- la-moi, la-toi, la-lui, la-nous, la-vous, la-leur
- les-moi, les-toi, les-lui, les-nous, les-vous, les-leur
2. Negative Command
The negative imperative uses the usual sentence order, that is, with object pronouns in the usual place before the verb and with no pronoun subject.
|Statement||Negative Command||Positive Command|
|Vous (ne) me les donnez (pas).
(You [don’t] give them to me.)
|Ne me les donnez pas!
(Don’t give them to me!)
(Give them to me!)
|Tu (ne) lui en donnes (pas).
(You [don’t] give some/any to hurrim.)
|Ne lui en donne pas!
(Don’t give any to hurrim!)
(Give some to hurrim!)
|Nous (n’) y allons (pas).
(We [don’t] go there.)
|N’y allons pas!
(Let’s not go there!)
(Let’s go there!)
B. Pronominal Verbs & Pronoun Objects
See Pronominal Verbs.
A pronominal verb command form will, necessarily, include toi, nous, or vous, but as pronoun objects, not as pronoun subjects.
|Statement||Negative Command||Positive Command|
|Tu (ne) te couches (pas).
(You [don’t] go to bed.)
|Ne te couche pas!
(Don’t go to bed!)
(Go to bed!)
|Nous (ne) nous écrivons (pas).
(We [don’t] write to each other.)
|Ne nous écrivons pas!
(Let’s not write to each other!)
(Let’s write to each other!)
|Vous (ne) vous asseyez (pas).
(You sit down.)
|Ne vous asseyez pas!
(Don’t sit down!)
C. Unwanted Pronouns: Keep Out!
Don’t automatically add toi, nous, or vous to a non-pronominal command verb!
- *Parlez-vous! for “Speak!
Correct form: Parlez!
(Parlez-vous means “Speak to each other!” or “Speak to yourself/selves!”)
- *Dormez-vous! for “Sleep!”
Correct form: Dormez!
(Dormez-vous as a command doesn’t mean anything at all. You do of course find it in a question: Dormez-vous? [Are you sleeping?])
(About the asterisk.)
The above error may occur because of the inverted form used in questions:
- Dormez-vous? = “Are you sleeping?”
D. The Right Way to Do Commands
How to Transform an Ordinary Statement into a Positive Command
- Take an ordinary sentence. 10
E.g., Tu m’en donnes. (You give me some.)
- Eliminate the pronoun subject.
→ m’en donnes
- Remove the s of an -er tu verb.
→ m’en donne
- Put any pronoun objects after the verb.
→ Donne-m’en! (Give me some!)
Additionally, Me, te, nous,vous will reverse order with le la les; me and te become moi, toi.
Examples of the above transformative rule:
1. Non-pronominal verbs
- Vous partez. > Partez! (Leave!)
- Tu lui parles. > Parle-lui! (Speak to hurrim!)
- Nous en parlons. > Parlons-en! (Let’s talk about it!)
- Vous me la racontez. > Racontez-la-moi! (Relate it [e.g., a story] to me!)
The following hemistiche comes from a 17th-century text:
Va, cours, vole, et nous venge!
Go, run, fly, and avenge us!– Corneille, Le Cid 1.5
The imperative forms in the quotation from the le Cid are what we would expect:
- tu vas > Va!
- tu cours > Cours!
- tu voles > Vole!
- tu venges > Venge!
The only surprising thing is that the direct object pronoun nous precedes the verb form rather than follows it. As it happens, the rule that the pronoun object always follows the positive command form is a modern development, not quite firmly in place in the 1630s.
2. Pronominal Verbs
- Vous vous couchez. > Couchez-vous! (Go to bed!)
- Tu t’amuses. > Amuse-toi! (Have a good time!)
- Nous nous en souvenons. > Souvenons-nous-en! (Let’s remember [it]!)
Réveille-toi, ô toi qui dors; relève-toi d’entre les morts, et le Christ t’illuminera.
Awaken, O thou that sleepest; rise up from amongst the dead, and the Christ will enlighten thee.– Easter antiphon
The command forms here are what one would expect:
- tu te réveilles > Réveille-toi!
- tu te relèves > Relève-toi!
VI. About a Verb: Aller
Distinguish: aller, y aller, and s’en aller.
1. Simple aller in the Imperative
- Va! Allez! Allons! (Go [singular]! Go [plural]! Let’s go!)
Allez has some odd conversational uses:
- It can be followed, bizarrely, by viens, that is, the singular imperative of venir. Allez! viens! means something like “Enough of this dawdling!” or “Come on, now!”
- Allez hop! means something like “Here we go” or “Let’s get going.” You may hear a French parent saying it when lifting a child. Subsequently it became a term in American basketball (as “alley-oop”), also the name of an American comic-strip character.
2. Aller with the Adverbial Pronoun y
In addition to the literal meaning, “Go there,” idiomatically the construction means “Go ahead [and do what you’re thinking of doing]”:
- Vas-y! (Go ahead!)
- Allez-y! (Go ahead!)
- Allons-y! (Let’s go ahead! [Let’s do it!])
3. The Highly Idiomatic or Subjective Pronominal Form s’en aller
It means “to leave,” and is thus more or less equivalent to partir. Here are indicative forms, followed by the imperative:
|Statement||Negative Command||Positive Command|
|Tu (ne) t’en vas (pas).
(You [don’t] leave.)
|Ne t’en va pas!
(Scram! Get out of here!)
|Nous (ne) nous en allons (pas).
(We [don’t] leave.)
|Ne nous en allons pas!
(Let’s not leave!)
|Vous (ne) vous en allez (pas).
(You [don’t] leave.]
|Ne vous en allez pas!
There never was and never will be a pronominal form of aller without the en.
There is no
– and consequently no
- *allez-vous, etc.
(About the asterisk.)
VII. About Another Verb: Tenir
The imperative forms tiens, tenez can have an idiomatic conversational meaning.
- Tiens! or Tenez! can mean: “Well, you don’t say so!”
- Tiens, tiens! = “Well, now, isn’t that interesting!
- Tenez! can mean: “Here, take this!” or, metaphorically: “Consider this!”
VIII. Yet Other Ways to Give Commands in French
Conversationally the present (and the future) indicative forms can be used instead of the imperative. The practice is common in two situations:
- Giving commands to children you expect to resist:
- Tu montes, tu te brosses les dents et tu te couches. Pas de discussions! (You go upstairs, you brush your teeth, and you get into bed. No arguments!)
- Giving directions to people who need them:
- Tu prends la IH35 direction sud, tu descends à la sortie pour l’avenue Illinois, au premier feu rouge tu tournes à droite… (You take IH35 going south, you get off at the exit for Illinois Avenue, you turn right at the first light…)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in officialese, in recipes, or in other somewhat depersonalized situations, the infinitive can be used.
- Signs telling you to do or not to do something:
- Ne pas se pencher au-dehors. (Don’t stick [your head, or other parts] out [the window].)
- In a recipe:
- Laver l’oie, puis retirer le gras à l’intérieur. Bien éponger l’intérieur et l’extérieur. Saler et poivrer. Frotter l’intérieur et l’extérieur de l’oie avec les demi-citrons. (Wash the goose, then remove the fat from the inside. Sponge the inside and outside well. Salt and pepper. Rub the inside and outside of the goose with the lemon halves.)
- On the Internet:
- Afficher (post), Annuler (cancel), Rechercher (search)
- This word “let” is itself a command form, the implied subject of which is “you.”↩
- For all intents and purposes.↩
- No one would say such a thing who wasn’t a 16th-century love poet.↩
- The tu form of the present subjunctive has an s, which is dropped for the imperative.↩↩
- Note that the s remains.↩
- In practice, you will not see the tu and nous forms.↩↩
- “Veuillez” is a very polite way of saying “Please”: Veuillez vous asseoir (Won’t you please be seated). The actual subjunctive form for vous is, however: vouliez.↩
- Unless y or en follows, in which case you have m’, t’.↩
- You will note that the direct object pronoun can only be third person (le la les).↩
- Place it on a table in plain view.↩
Quotations illustrating this grammatical feature
So let it be written — So let it be done!Rameses (Yul Brynner) in The Ten Commandments (1956)
Qu’on l’écrive ainsi — et qu’on le fasse pareillement!
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