The imperative in English

(Explanation and use of the imperative mood in English grammar)

What is the imperative and how is it used?

The imperative is a form of the verb, more precisely a mood. This form expresses commands, demands, explicit requests, orders, and so on. It is an essential component of imperative sentences. In English grammar, the imperative is very easy to construct because it never changes its form – neither in the singular nor the plural. The verb form is similar to the infinitive without ‘to’, and that is how it appears in the sentence. Compare:

  • In English, the imperative always addresses one or more people directly. So, you ask someone to do something:
    • Call me later, please.”
    • Pass me the salt, please.”

How is the imperative formed?

As mentioned above, the English imperative is a relatively simple verb form following a straightforward formation. The starting point in positive sentences is always the verb in its infinitive (basic form) without ‘to’. In negative sentences, however, an auxiliary verb is used (usually ‘to do’), which can sometimes be replaced by the adverb ‘never’. Compare the formation in example sentences:

  • Positive (affirmative) imperative sentences:
    • “Honey, shut the window, please. It’s getting cold.”
      • The verb appears in its infinitive form without ‘to’.
    • Leave your dirty shoes outside!”
      • positive sentence but a more direct command
  • Negative (negated) imperatives:
    • Don’t eat the cake before dinner.”
      • negative command with the auxiliary verb ‘don’t’ (short form)
    • Do not forget to lock the door when you leave.”
      • This form is also negated but ‘to do’ appears in its regular form (do not) and not its short form to emphasise the importance.
  • Negated variants of commands with the help of adverbs like ‘never’, etc.:
    • Never leave your luggage unattended.”
      • Here, the verb ‘leave’ is also negated, but not with the regular form ‘do not’ but with the adverb ‘never’ at the beginning of the sentence.

What are the special forms of the English imperative?

In addition to the regular forms of the imperative above, some exceptional cases need to be considered. They also frequently occur especially in spoken language. Compare the following:

Imperative statements with ‘let’s

  • Instead of using the sole verb in the statement, ‘let’s’ can also be employed. This combination is regularly the case if the speakers include themselves, which means the form is actually in the first person plural, so to speak. In this way, the imperative is rather a suggestion:
    • Let’s go home. I’m getting tired.”
    • Let’s go and get something to eat.”

Negations with ‘to be

  • Negative imperative sentences with ‘to be’ also require the auxiliary verb ‘to do’ (‘don’t’ or ‘do not’). This requirement is a particularity, as ‘to be’ does not usually demand an additional auxiliary verb (see details on the special verb ‘to be’):
    • Don’t be shy, little princess, it’s just your grandfather.”
      • This statement includes the short form ‘don’t’.
    • “Please do not be sad.”
      • Here, the auxiliary ‘to do’ is not shortened.

Negative commands or requests with ‘no

  • Short requests, instructions (or the like) as they are often presented on road signs or signs in public buildings are another way of using the imperative. Example:
    • No smoking.”
      • Here, the present participle (ing-form) is simply negated with ‘no’ to keep the phrase as short as possible.

Further explanations related to the ‘Imperative’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Use of the imperative mood in English grammar’ and might also be interesting: