Types of Imperative Sentence

Forms of Imperative Sentences and Examples

Several sentence structures fall within the general category of imperatives. However, certain imperative forms are more appropriate than others, depending upon the meaning that the speaker wishes to convey. In this entry, we explore how various types of English imperative sentences are formed and used.

The auxiliary “do” occurs in front of so-called Emphatic Imperative like the example in 1b). “Do” before the bare infinitive indicates that the speaker is adding a sense of urgency to the command being uttered.

  • 1a)  Hurry up. → basic imperative
  • 1b)  Do hurry up! → emphatic imperative

Emphatic imperatives sound a bit stilted and archaic to some native speakers of American English, who would prefer to attach the tag will you, as shown in 2a), to add a sense of urgency to a command. Imperatives with would you tags, like 2b), do not carry the same sense of urgency as those with will you, and are usually interpreted as informal polite requests.

  • 2a)  Hurry up, will you!
  • 2b)  Get my gloves out the car, would you?

You may see these tagged imperatives written with exclamation marks after them, as in 2a). Some writers put a question mark after them, although they function more as a command or a request for compliance than as an actual question. The convention of putting a comma before the tag is usually followed with these imperatives.

For some time, it has been claimed that imperatives have an underlying subject, you. In other words, while an imperative sentence may have no visible subject, the second-person singular or plural pronoun you is nevertheless understood to be the subject of the sentence.

As support for this claim, we can point to the fact that subjectless imperatives such as those in 1) have variants such as those in 2) with a tag that contains you.

We can also point to the fact that imperatives with reflexive pronouns, as in 3a), can only take the reflexive pronoun yourself. Other reflexive pronounsOpens in new window do not occur, as 3b) through 3e) demonstrate.

  • 3a)  Behave yourself!
  • 3b)  Behave myself!
  • 3c)  Behave herself!
  • 3d)  Behave ourselves!
  • 3e)  Behave themselves!

Additional support for the proposition that subjectless imperatives have an underlying you subjects is the fact that, under certain circumstances, imperatives include a visible pronoun subject you, as shown in 4a). Other pronouns, in contrast, are not permitted as subjects of imperatives, as 4b), 4c), and 4d) demonstrate.

  • 4a)  You behave yourself!
  • 4b)  *She behave herself!
  • 4c)  *He behave himself!
  • 4d)  *They behave themselves!

There are special cases when other subjects can occur in imperatives, for instance, when the speaker is addressing a particular group of people, as in 5a). Also, the indefinite pronounsOpens in new window someone, somebody, and nobody often occur as subjects when the speaker is uttering a directive to everyone who may be present. Examples 5b) and 5c) illustrate such cases.

  • 5a)  Passengers going to Dayton, form a line over here.
  • 5b)  Somebody please go find a doctor.
  • 5c)  Nobody move!

The term vocative refers to utterances that contains a noun phraseOpens in new window that is a proper name or some kind of address form, for example, Ma’am, Sir, waiter, Dear, or you all.

Vocatives are used to call someone or to direct a person’s attention to something. They are sometimes used as part of an imperative to direct a particular person or group to do something. The vocative noun phrase is usually separated from the rest of the utterance by a pause, which is represented in writing by a comma. Although vocatives usually appear in the first position in a sentence, as in 6a) and 6b), they can also occur at the end, as in 6c).

  • 6a)  Kim, you go first.
  • 6b)  Dear, look what I found under the couch.
  • 6c)  Look what I found under the couch, dear.

A new kind of softend command imperative that begins with I need you has developed in American English. The three-word formula that begins this type of imperative is always followed by an infinitive complements that describes what the speaker wants the addressee to do.

Such imperatives, as shown in 7), are very impersonal and are widely used by people in professions who deal with many strangers each day (receptionists, nurses, police officers, etc.).

  • 7a)  I need you to fill out this form.
  • 7b)  I need you to take off your clothes and put on this robe.
  • 7c)  I need you to step back from the car, sir.

An imperative that begins with let’s, such as 8a), proposes an action that includes the speaker and the listener. The meaning of 8a), therefore, is shown in 8b).

  • 8a)  Let’s eat breakfast.
  • 8b)  I propose that you and I eat breakfast.

Let’s imperatives can also have a meaning that is closer to an order or an instruction. This is the meaning conveyed by the imperatives in 9a) through 9d).

  • 9a)  Let us bow our heads in prayer.
  • 9b)  You all have something to do for Ms. Johnson. Let’s do it, please.
  • 9c)  Let’s have a look at your tongue.
  • 9d)  Ok. It looks like we may have gone too far, so let’s take the next exit and turn around.

The more formal let us used in 9a) announces that the speaker is about to bow his or her own head in prayer and expects all of those within hearing to do the same. In 9b), a teacher instructs a group of children to begin carrying out their assignments.

The use of let’s as a polite way of framing a command occurs in many different settings, such as the one in 9c), where a doctor is actually conveying an instruction, Stick out your tongue. In 9d), a passenger uses a let’s imperative to politely tell the driver to exit the freeway and turn around.

Let’s imperatives sometimes occur with tags that have rising intonation. The tag shall we, as used in 10a), appears to be more common in British English, whereas American English tends to use the tag OK, as shown in 10b).

  • 10a)  OK, let’s keep that on, shall we? (British English)
  • 16b)  Let’s take turns, OK? (American English)
  • 10c)  Let’s not talk about what happened anymore, please?
  • 10d)  Let’s not discuss it anymore, shall we?

Most writers insert a comma before the tag in these imperatives and end the imperative with a question mark, as if it were a tag questionOpens in new window. Let’s imperatives are negated by placing not after let’s, as is the case in 10c) and 10d) above.

The following two structures begin with let’s but are not true imperatives:

Let’s see is an idiomatic expression that often precedes an utterance in conversation, as shown in 11). It seems to indicate that the speaker is thinking, searching for information, or trying to decide on something.

  • 11a)  Let’s see. Are you working now?
  • 11b)  Um, let’s see, I’ll have to give you some more.

The so-called open let imperative differs in meaning from the let’s imperative. It is not an instruction to do something and is therefore not a true imperative. Instead, its meaning is best paraphrased using the modal should. Thus, 12a) means the same thing as 12b), and 12c) has the same meaning as 12d).

  • 12a)  If that is what he really intends to do, let him say so.
  • 12b)  If that is what he really intends to do, then he should say so.
  • 12c)  Let that be a lesson to you.
  • 12d)  That should be a lesson to you.