Imperative Verbs

English language learners are taught early on that English sentences take a subject and a verb. The common sentence pattern “SVO” (subject-verb-object) gets drilled into their brains. What happens when those students see sentences with no subject, such as “Close the door” or “Don’t run in the hallways”?

Verbs that don’t have an obvious subject are called imperative verbs, and they are usually taught early on since they use the simple present tense. Use the teaching tips below to make sure your students understand the form and function of these common verbs.

Form

Imperative verbs take the first position in a sentence, so you can teach students to think of the pattern as V (+ O) instead of the usual S + V (+ O).

Imperative verbs actually do have a subject, but it is never stated. That subject is you (the second person singular or plural).

Imperative verbs are always stated in the simple present. Because the subject is the unstated you, the verb form is the simple present, second person singular form (which looks like a base verb). It never takes an -s (third person singular) ending.

  • Relax.
  • Finish your homework.
  • Take a deep breath.

The negative form of imperative verbs also follows the negative simple present, second person singular form (do + not + verb). It is often contracted to don’t + verb.

  • Do not speak French.
  • Don’t run.
  • Don’t work too late.

Imperative verbs don’t have a regular question form. Questions in English almost always include a subject. For example, Do you like pizza? is correct, but Do like pizza? is not correct. For higher-level learners, you may wish to point out that imperative verbs can be used for very informal questions (usually to confirm something). For example, we can say Bring a jacket, right? or Pass you this one or that one?

Function

We use imperative verbs to give commands or directions, state rules, or give advice. In fact, the word imperative means commanding/important/controlling.

Remind English language learners that imperative verbs can be directed at one person (i.e., the second person singular) or two or more people (i.e., the second person plural).

Common uses of imperative verbs include:

1. Parents telling children what to do:

  • Do your homework!
  • Do the dishes.
  • Eat your dinner.
  • Don’t play with your food!

2. Teachers giving instructions to students:

  • Finish the exercise on page 8.
  • Stop talking!
  • Open your books to Chapter 2.
  • Don’t look at your phones in class.

3. Employers giving instructions to employees:

  • Hand in that report by Friday.
  • Don’t forget about the meeting tomorrow.
  • Turn your computer off when you leave.
  • Stop by my office.

4. People in authority, such as police officers, telling other people what to do:

  • Don’t drink and drive.
  • Put all metal objects into this container.
  • Fill out this form.
  • Show me your ID.

5. Rules, guidelines, or laws:

  • Don’t run by the pool.
  • Do not trespass.
  • Take off your shoes.
  • Dress appropriately.

6. Friends or family members giving advice:

  • Don’t forget to call him back.
  • Follow up with an email.
  • Don’t borrow money from friends.
  • Ask me for help anytime.

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