The veil of the imperative has started to lift...

You'd have thought attaining level 19* would suggest a decent grasp of the French imperative (l'impératif). But no. Understanding this is one of those things you wish someone had told you to get to grips with in the early stages.

Why? Because, using the imperative is like taking a shortcut, or perhaps using the language more intuitively: its natural in everyday speech - echoing its use in English, literally uses less words, and implies information such as the subject tense. For example:

Allons-y! / Let's go (there)!

Very popular French phrase. I've seen and used it many times as one of those practical phrases which sounds cool when you're first learning the language. It pops up in many phrase-books and "how to learn French in 30 days" style tutorials.

At the same time, I can't recall ever having this phrase properly explained as an imperative command. Of course it clearly is, but never mentioned in those terms. So initially I struggled to understand how the conjugation of "Aller" in the third person plural (nous) could mean "let's" (the optional "there" is for another discussion).

Before going any further, here's more information about the imperative which highlights that its used for the following purposes:

  • give an order: Arrêtez-les
  • express a desire / make a request: Excusez-moi
  • offer advice: Prends le bus
  • recommend something: Allez le Gugenheim

The key in all these examples is that the subject pronoun is omitted! For the uninitiated, this creates all sorts of problems because we initially learn to conjugate based on the appropriate pronoun, which usually comes before the verb it acts upon, only to then discover imperative commands with no preceding pronoun and hyphenated pronouns following the verb! In addition, I found it utterly confusing trying to work out why a verb like "Aller" took the -ez or -ons ending in certain phrases (such as in the examples above).

So, without wishing to write war and peace, I would encourage newer learners in particular to learn about the imperative for the following reasons:

  • You learn how to say everyday phrases with more ease and efficiency: E.g. "let's take the bus" = "Prenons le bus";

  • You learn how to identify and use pronouns in affirmative and negative commands: E.g. "Don't give it to him" = "ne le lui donnez pas" contrast with "Give it to him" = "Donnez-le-lui" (The link above explains that, for negative imperative commands, the pronoun order reverts back to normal);

  • You learn there are only three forms of conjugating the imperative: tu, nous & vous (see the link for minor changes depending on the type of verb used);

  • You learn how to utilise prepositions (e.g."en") in expressions like "bois-en" ("drink some").

And I'm sure there are other good reasons. Bottom line is that knowledge of the imperative is very useful from an early stage.

Merci, I hope you have found this useful :-)

P.s. Please feel free to point out any mistakes here as it would be useful for me and anyone else to learn from them.

* Yes levelling is not always an accurate indication of knowledge... etc etc, so I'll save some the trouble of pointing this out.

August 13, 2014


The imperative is also a good source of informal utterances.

vas-t'en ( get lost ) this is an odd one since "s'en aller" has a meaning more like to leave.

laissez-moi tranquille ( Leave me alone )

sois sage ( Be good ) lit ( to be wise )

soyez béni ( Bless you ) lit ( to be blessed )

donne-le-moi ( give it to me )

Don't forget that the te reflexive changes to a toi in the positive reflevive "habille-toi!" ( dress yourself! ) to differentiate from "Habille tu?" ( Are you dressed ? )

August 15, 2014

Yes, some good phrases there. Thanks

August 15, 2014

To add, I don't know what imperatives are like or when they are introduced in other languages but has anyone had the same experience in other languages? Should the imperative be higher up in the tree?

August 13, 2014

Thanks for your honesty. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one who doesn't get it. Have a Lingot!

August 13, 2014

Why thank you kindly :-)

August 13, 2014

This is so useful. Actually I just realised imperatives is in the tree, but I haven't quite got there yet, so it's always confused me. I kept seeing "veuillez" in France and couldn't for the life of me work it out. So thanks :D

August 13, 2014

That's it! I think it should be further up the tree. Thanks for your view.

August 13, 2014
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