What is an imperative sentence?
We use imperative sentences to give orders, commands, and general instructions. Such sentences are said to be in the Imperative Mood, one of the Irrealis Moods in English.
Verbs without subjects
When we make an imperative sentence, we use the infinitive form of the verb (without “to”), and we omit the subject of the verb. We can also intensify the sentence by adding an exclamation mark at the end.
- “Stand up.”
- “Sit down!”
- “Turn off the light before you leave.”
- “Go to bed!”
As you can see, there are no subjects in the sentences above. For example, it would be incorrect to say, “Open you the window”—it should simply be, “Open the window.” It would also generally be incorrect to say “You open the window,” unless it is done for emphasis (as in a retort). For example:
- A: “Daniel, could you please open the window?”
- B: “You open the window!”
Subjects vs. Nouns of Address
Note that this is not the same as using a noun of address (also known as a vocative), which is a noun or noun phrase used to address someone directly in a sentence. Nouns of address act as parenthetical elements within a sentence, grammatically unrelated to the rest of the content. They are set apart with one or two commas, depending on their position in a sentence. For example:
- “John, please turn out that light.”
- “Stand up, Janet.”
- “Be quiet, sir!”
- “You there, pay attention!”
John, Janet, sir, and you there are not the subjects of their sentences’ verbs; they are nouns of address.
We can make imperative statements negative by putting “do not” or “don’t” before the infinitive verb:
- “Don’t run in the hallways!”
- “Do not leave your dirty dishes in the sink.”
Instructions, notices, and prohibitions
The imperative form is also used for general instructions, as might be seen on product instructions, formal announcements, notices, or in prohibitions. If these are in the negative, “do not” is usually not contracted. For example:
- “Wash all woolen garments in lukewarm water.”
- “Do not smoke in the airport.”
- “Do not leave your luggage unattended.”
Usage Note: Imperatives vs. “No” + Gerund
There is another form of prohibition that can be found in public notices, which is “no” plus a gerund (a verb put into the “-ing” form and used as a noun). This is used for general prohibitions, as in “no running,” “no smoking,” “no parking,” etc. While similar to the negative imperatives above, and even having the exact same meaning sometimes (“do not smoke in the airport” means the same as “no smoking in the airport”), this formation is not truly imperative from a grammatical point of view; it is considered a noun phrase made up of a determiner (“no”) and a gerund.
We can also use the auxiliary verb “do” before the main verb of an imperative sentence. This adds an emphasis to the tone of the command, instruction, or request. For instance:
- “Oh, do shut up!”
- “Do take care of yourself, Mary!”
- “Please do enjoy your stay.”
This “emphatic do” can also be made negative, which changes the way a negative imperative sentence is constructed. Take for instance this negative imperative:
- “Don’t talk to me like that.”
If we want to add emphasis to “don’t,” we simply add the subject back into the sentence before the verb:
- “Don’t you talk to me like that!”