Discover the English Imperative Mood

From reading recipes to giving orders, imperatives are everywhere. Learn about the imperative mood with this deep dive into the most commanding of verb moods.

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By Chiara Pegoraro · February 14, 2024 · 9 minute read

Don’t worry, be happy. Excuse me. Let’s go. Don’t smoke. Just do it.

What do these expressions all have in common?

They are all imperatives. You’ve probably never noticed them before, but imperatives are very common and most of the time we use them without even noticing.

They’re also very simple. The imperative mood doesn’t have irregular forms (well, just one but it’s very easy, you definitely already know it), it only uses one form, and it has a unique characteristic among English verbs that makes it more direct than any other verb mood.

So, are you ready to jump into the world of the imperative mood? Let’s go!

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What is the imperative mood and why do we use it?

The imperative mood is used to give an order, a command, to give instructions and to tell you what to do. Let’s start with an example:

  • You eat a big slice of cake.
  • Eat a big slice of cake!

In this example, the imperative is not describing an unhealthy eating habit, and it’s not passing judgment on the way you are looking at your birthday cake. It’s simply telling you to eat more cake! Don’t you love it already?

Jokes aside, this is the big difference with the imperative mood and other moods in English. It’s not describing a situation, it’s commanding you to do something.

Let’s look at another example:

  • You don’t worry, you are happy.
  • Don’t worry, be happy.

Bobby McFerrin knew what he was talking about (if you don’t know this classic ‘80s song, Google “Don’t worry be happy” as soon as you finish reading this). Describing someone who isn't worried and is happy is challenging, but encouraging someone to be happy is easy.

Pro tip: Did you notice, we also stumbled upon the only irregular verb in the imperative mood, “to be”. The imperative uses the same form of the infinitive, in this case “to be” becomes simply “be”.

How is the imperative mood different from any other tense?

Apart from being a command, the imperative mood also has a pretty unique characteristic among English verb moods - it doesn’t need a subject.

X You close the door.
Close the door!

There are several languages that don’t require an explicit subject to work, (these are called pro-drop languages in linguistics) and it’s a fairly common characteristic among world languages. English, on the other hand, always requires an explicit subject, like in these examples:

She’s on holiday. We went to the zoo. I would like a coffee, please. If I were you, I would do the same thing.

As you can see in these examples, different tenses and different verb moods all require a subject. But, not so with the imperative, when you always drop the subject.

  • Come here!
  • Sit down!
  • Shut up!

There is a simple explanation for this. We already said that the imperative is used to give a command or an instruction. It is very direct and it always refers to the person you are talking to (or who is reading the message). You cannot give a command to someone who isn’t there. This rule doesn't apply to third-person subjects, making it impossible to form an imperative sentence with "she," "he," or "they" as the subject. You might give yourself an order, but in that case you would talk to yourself using you.

You might, however, give a command to a group of people that includes yourself and that would be the pronoun we. How would we express that?

Let’s talk about let’s

"Let's" is the form we use to introduce an imperative that addresses a group of people, including the speaker. The verb let means “to allow” and can be used in many ways:

  • I would love to come but I don’t think my boss will let me take the day off.
  • I’m letting this slide, just this once.
  • They let the dogs out.
  • My roommate lets me use her car when I need it.

Needless to say, we can use it in the imperative with all pronouns:

  • Elsa, let it go!
  • Let me help you!
  • Don’t let this worry you.
  • Let us worry about that.

"Let us," especially in its contracted form “let's”, is used to indicate the imperative in the first-person plural form "we." It is primarily used to address a group that includes the speaker, and it is the only way to convey an imperative in this context.

  • Let’s have Chinese food for dinner!
  • Let’s go get some ice-cream.
  • Let’s start packing or we’re going to be late.

Learn using the imperative at your own pace.

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Just a gentle advice: Try to “get” some rest in between your lessons and continue learning when you can. You can download Busuu’s free online lessons and start again when you are up and running!

Further imperative mood examples

The imperative is not only about giving orders, but also gentle reminders, suggestions, recommendations and invitations. Imperatives are used on signs, in recipes and in instruction manuals. You will use the imperative used in a gym class, by a police officer or a relative sitting next to you at the dinner table. When speaking, we can make a request less harsh by using a gentle tone or softer language.

Here are a few more examples of imperative mood sentences that show various uses of the imperative.

  • Giving commands: Close the door, do your homework
  • Instructions for signs or notices: Keep off the grass, wash your hands before returning to work
  • Making requests: Help me, pass the salt
  • Giving suggestions: Try our new menu, let’s go for a walk
  • Issuing invitations: Come to our party, join us for dinner
  • Giving step-by-step instructions: Cook for two minutes then flip
  • Expressing wishes: Get well soon, have a nice day
  • Giving advice or encouragement: Take a break, go have lunch

So it’s important to always think about a polite way to express yourself, even if what you want to convey is really not up to discussion. As we were saying,

How to make the imperative less harsh

The imperative can sometimes sound a little abrupt. In verbal communication, using a calmer tone is important. There is a big difference from barking “Pass the salt!” to someone sitting next to you at dinner and calmly asking them to “Pass the salt” in a friendly voice. But tone is not the only thing. We can also use words and expressions to soften the request.

  • Please, take a seat.
  • Kindly wait for your turn.
  • Close the door, if you don’t mind.
  • Call me, when you get a chance.
  • Whenever you’re ready, come to my office.

By adding these phrases, we can sound more polite and considerate, especially in a formal or professional setting. You could change a sentence altogether and use a different verb mood like could or would:

  • Could you pass the salt?
  • Would you close the door, please?
  • Would you mind passing me the salt?
  • It would be great if you could finish your assignment first.

These are all ways to maintain the politeness of a sentence while still conveying the request you want to make. The same goes for written language. Throughout this article, you might have noticed sentences written in the imperative often have an exclamation mark (!). Although it is common, this is not essential and dropping it would make the sentence sound less harsh.

Negative and reflexive sentences

Negative sentences with the imperative are pretty straightforward. When the sentence refers to you (both singular and plural), we use the regular auxiliary don’t. This does not work with let, (we cannot say don’t let’s argue about this) so the negative form will be let’s not as you can see in these examples:

  • Don’t sit here.
  • Don’t call me!
  • Let’s not worry just yet.
  • Let’s not argue about this.

When the action you are describing is directed at the subject (i.e. I wash myself) you will have to add the reflexive pronouns.

  • Be yourself.
  • Do it yourself.
  • Trust yourselves.
  • Take care of yourselves.
  • Let’s enjoy ourselves.
  • Let’s remind ourselves about this.

Pro tip: In this case, remember that if the subject is you singular, it will have the singular pronoun yourself, but if it’s plural, it would have the plural yourselves. Every sentence starting with let’s will have the pronoun ourselves.

Imperative mood: Wrapping up

The imperative mood is a verb used to give orders, instructions and suggestions. It has the unique characteristic of having no explicit subject and has a separate form for we.

It’s a very common verb mood that you need to use to give instructions or requests in English. But remember to add some polite phrases or a friendly tone to ensure you can do it in a polite way. So be free, ask your friend to pass the salt, don’t worry and be happy!

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