The Imperative Mood Mystery

Our imperative mood mystery is a bit like the fabled purple people eater, but much more important.  What is to be understood about the creature can be confusing, because it may be unknown whether the consumer prefers purple people – obviously a case of discrimination! – or if our consumer is purple.  Were (s)he/it blue, we’d understand the mood, should we accuse the devourer of being yellow, we may find – to our peril – that this being is no coward at all.  Red or Green, well, that would refer to political parties.  Perhaps this mythical being initiated the fashion of using purple among members of Ms. Clinton’s political party in the U.S.A.

Our mystery here, in the same vein, can start out with the question: is this a mystery about a mood imperative to have, that is, a must-have mood; or a mystery about the imperative mood, or shall we say, a question about grammar?

We confess that we are addressing the second one of these matters.

We brought up the purple people eater, because it is in one of the author’s books on grammar – yet to be found again among rows, piles, boxes, and shelves of books.

Having brought that up, I hope to be able to provide a minimum of entertainment and knowledge through this short article.

The mystery began, in a way, with the shortest command of which I am aware: i.

No, that is not a misprint, but for the learner, the more common representation is: ī, pronounced as name of the second vowel in our alphabet, “E”.

Were the order in German, it would end with an exclamation mark.  The influence of such punctuation upon the character of a person might make for an interesting psychological study.  We seem to equate exclamations (Ouch!) with orders (Just watch!)  Well, they are somewhat exclamatory, but for grammatical purposes, these categories need to be kept separate.

Our short command word “I” is Latin for “go”, when addressing one person.  It was a Latin text which brought this subject to our mind, and up to now, we have looked it up in 4 more languages.  We will focus principally on our belief that English texts have mistakenly grafted an idea from Latin grammar into their descriptions of non-second person imperative forms.

Often confusion may arise, or have arisen, because of terminology used with regards to this question.  The reader will soon see how this is the case.

We began with a book titled Latin, by F. Kinchen Smith, of the Teach Yourself series. (Hodder & Stoughton, 1948).  The model verb tables near the end of the book showed imperative forms which I did not remember from my secondary school days (and the explanation is that the material was not in the textbook used).  Leaving aside the fact that the original form of this particular book was written in England in 1938 by a certain W. A. Edward, with a heavy dosage of thee, thou, ye, and other such linguistic phenomena, we come across amātō, which, according to the presentation, (p. 290) would mean both “Thou shalt love” and “He shall love”.  She, too, for sure!  Then we find, amantō, (ibid.), they shall love, which sounds too much like the future.

Yet, what we have just seen is an imperative in the third person, or so we are led to believe. Advanced students may have become acquainted with it in their studies of the English language, but I dissent with both this and some lesser points – but the question is not  whether the Latin has been correctly interpreted, but if the English is correct at all in the more advanced textbooks we have consulted on the subject.


My first impulse was to check with Quirk, Greenbaum, et. al.’s A Grammar of Contemporary English, (Longman, 1972), which gives us not only a third person imperative, but one in the first person, all prefixed with “let”, hence:

Let me/us/her/him/them  do a certain thing.

A footnote explains that this “let” is no more than an introductory particle, not to be confused with the “ordinary 2nd person imperative of let as a transitive verb” (p. 404).  The supposed proof is that in a sentence (which here is restated, as the clarity of the original does not seem right), “Let us go”, in the sense of “Free us”, cannot be abbreviated to “Let’s go”. (The original text explained this as stating that the “Permit us to go” version of the preceding cannot be abbreviated as shown.)  I reject this particular idea; both a Webster’s Collegiate and an Oxford Dictionary show that “let” is used either a verb or a noun. As it is not a noun in the example we have cited, it can only be a verb.

If “let” is a verb, then the subject, which is understood, remains “you”, and therefore, to speak of a first person plural and a third person imperative form in the English language seems to be a mistaken carry-over from Latin, where the concept makes sense for the simple reason that the verb endings correspond according to the required person and number. (This may also be true for ancient Greek and Sanskrit.)

More confusing perhaps is the form, “Somebody turn off the lights”. (Similar examples may be found in Leech, Svartvik, et. al.,  A Communicative Grammar of English, (Longman, 1975, p. 146).  This does look like the third person, but our analysis still brings us back to the second person.

Imagine the room has four individuals in it. The command was not softened by “will” or “please”, so this suggestion about keeping the planet green, reduced to its basic meaning, with an almost haughty disregard for acknowledging the presence of any of these temporary occupants of the room, becomes:

You, you, you, or you, (I don’t care who will), turn off the lights.

The word somebody functions two ways here: it allows the speaker to avoid ordering any specific individual to do anything, and as previously mentioned, it suggests a taking of distance from the group.

I have found no similar idea for Spanish, but a comment might be in order on what Duden’s Die Grammatik (1973) gives as an example which we feel capable of being challenged in German: Again, we give an original sentence, based on an example given in the work just cited (p. 101).

Sind Sie so gut und leihen mir ein tausend Euro.

In following the example given in that work, I have not repeated “Sie” after leihen.

Roughly this means, as a literal translation is not grammatical:

Please be so kind as to lend me a thousand Euros.

The argument is that this is a third person plural form drops by the wayside when we consider that the courteous manner of address for “you” in German always uses this form. It is identical to the third person plural for “they”.  In practice, the distinction is clear, because either a person hears this word spelled s-i-e, and knows that (s)he is being addressed, or that a group of persons or things are being referred to.  In writing, the distinction is by capitalizing the word when it means “you”.

Restated – while it is true that this is the third person plural in German; in a language such as Spanish or French, it would be the polite form of the second person plural, so any attempt to consider this as a true example of usage in the third person is not valid except in the original language.  Perhaps it is explained differently in newer works – I would have called it the Formal Second Person Singular and Plural, identical to the Third Person Plural.

Having finished with that rant, and going back to our Latin text, we have even stranger examples to consider: On page 295, we have passive imperatives, of which we will only give the most extreme example, amantor, “They shall be loved”.  Our first problem is that this sounds to the modern ear like a future.  So, elsewhere, the text provides translation ideas such as “Let them be loved”.  The problem with “let” has already been discussed above.

This discussion brought to mind the supposed quip by Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake”.

We could also consider this as a type of wish, “May they eat cake”.  Such sentences in the other languages mentioned above were usually treated with the subjunctive.  A perusal into what is supposedly the best Latin text in the U.S.A., Wheelock’s mentions the jussive (a type of subjunctive), but its 500-plus pages hardly managed to introduce what the 300-plus Kinchen Smith volume did.  My high school text – Latin for Canadian Schools (David Breslove and Arthur G. Hooper, Copp Clark Publishing Co., Toronto, 1958), about the same size as Wheelock’s, went a little further, this way: on page 366, it introduces the Hortatory Subjunctive which implies, (as reworded) the urging of members of a group to engage in an action, in which the person suggesting the deed will also participate: “Let us:”

Before returning to our example about interrupting the supply of what in Latin America is often referred to as the fluido eléctrico, or let us say, not giving any more juice to the lights, let it be mentioned that in French, so very appropriate to Marie Antoinette’s possible misunderstanding of the dire straits of the Parisian masses, we could find a sentence which is apparently, to the untrained eye, declarative:

Je meure, si je mens! (May I die if I am lying!)

An elliptical “Que” is understood to precede the subject of the sentence, and it is in the subjunctive, although in pronunciation meure and meurs (of the indicative mood) sound alike, if I am not mistaken. (The example is from W. H. Fraser, J. Squair, & David Hobarth Carnahan, Standard French Grammar, D. C. Heath & Co. Boston, 1931, p. 329, §272, 1. Subsection (a) is also relevant.)

Using the same analysis which was used in the example about saving electricity, we can then say that a sentence like, “Let us serve as an example of what is right”, becomes:

You, you … and you (myself included), serve (as of now) as an example of what is right.

The words in parenthesis needed to be added to avoid the sentence from sounding merely declarative.  The imperative is in the future, and this idea had to be integrated into the revised sentence.

Since the “you” is understood, we obtain added clarity with:

Serve as an example of what is right, together with me.

The construction of our sentence, repeated further below, as at least one author considers the above form dated, but first,

We will give one more transformation, in order to buttress the argument against this being a third-person imperative.  We will put it into simple English, save that it is a compound sentence joined by “and”.

Let us serve as an example of what is right = Serve as an example of what is right, and I will serve as an example of what is right.

The point of the preceding is to show that the “Let us” in effect binds two separate ideas into one, thus giving us a more elegant sentence.  For those who enjoy mathematics, we give a similar, but more entertaining example near the bottom of this page.

On the following page (367), the authors go into the third person, which they now call the Jussive Subjunctive.  It is a command, and the suggested translation was “Let him …”

The Wheelock text is less clear, distinguishing between commands and imperative, while the Longman texts consulted, under the latter word in the index, sent us to the former.

A fourth useful text consulted, Latin Grammar for Schools and Colleges, Albert Harkness, (William Warwick, Toronto, 1876), may help shed some more light on the topic.  First, regarding the terminology between imperatives and commands:

“The Imperative is used in commands, exhortations, and entreaties …” (p. 249, and repeated p. 250 for the Imperative Present).

On page 249, he also stated, as an introduction to what was to come: the Future Imperative exists in the Second and Third person, and “corresponds to the imperative use of the English Future with shall, or to the Imperative let …”

And finally, on page 250 again:

“The Imperative Future is used … II. In laws, orders, precepts, etc.:  … The safety of the people shall be the supreme law. Cic.” [Cicero]

The foregoing has shown that to speak of other than a second person imperative form in English seems to be a misnomer based upon Latin grammar.  In all English forms, the sentences can be rearranged to show that the subject “you” remains understood.

Before leaving, here is what some other books have to say on this topic, or what insights they might provide.

I am especially struck by the example of H. W. Fowler, in what now is not A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford, 1926), under the heading of “Subjunctives”.  While no specific reference is made to what we have here, he gives what would in effect be what other books have described, and as I have criticized, third person commands.  He refers to 3rd person curses, such as “Manners be hanged!”  If an argument can be made for a 3rd person imperative, this is as close as we get, although it might also be argued, that this is simply the restatement of a wish, or an elliptical, more polite way of saying something like:

(Go) Hang yourself and your idea of manners!

A contribution to the idea of commands is made by H. A. Treble and G. H. Vallin in An ABC of English Usage (Oxford, 1936), where it states, under “Imperative Mood”, that in older English, the subject was “more often expressed – ‘Go and do thou likewise (AV).’

Our next observation bears contrasting with other sources.  A. J. Thomson and A.V. Martinet, in A Practical English Grammar, 3rd ed., Oxford, 1980, p. 246, §281. C., suggest that the construction with “let” is now uncommon, and more usually replaced by “had better” for the 3rd person command.  Furthermore (p. 247), the negative “let (person X) not go” is considered outmoded.

This may be contrasted with Collins Cobuild Student’s Grammar (HarperCollins, 1991), where the negative form of such a command is given as “let’s not” or “don’t let’s”.

Quirk, Greenbaum, et. al. (p. 404) consider any format other than “let me” to be “rather archaic and elevated”.  “Let us not” is considered valid  (p. 406, §7.76 [IV]. Whether the fact that this text was published 8 years earlier than A Practical English Usage is of any significance, is a matter we will leave undecided.

We close the above considerations with another Quirk, Greenbaum, et. al. text, this one, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985).  On p. 148, there is some discussion of the ideas “let us” and “let them”, with “let’s not” and familiar American variants in §3.51 n (b) of that page.  “Let us/me not” are again considered valid on p. 831, §11.28. The idea given in their previous work (previous paragraph) on the archaic and elevated tone except for “let me” is again repeated, p.830, §11.26.  We are now 5 years after the publication of the Thomson-Martinet text, and personally, we consider their view as their own.

The most interesting contribution of the above text to our present topic is the mention of inclusive and exclusive forms of “we”. Its usage, if I have interpreted the passage correctly (p. 341. §6.7) with “let’s” is inclusive, in that our command, “Let’s have supper” can be supplemented by the tag, “shall we”.  It is understood that “you” and “I” are included, which seems to support my argument for suggesting “you” as the subject even for these, what other authors consider to be first person imperatives.

On a lighter note, the following has occurred to me.  Let us take the simple sentence,

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,

and make it imperative:

Let’s (all) scream for ice scream, shall we!

We could explain this to the mathematically inclined as follows:

Let the number of persons involved in the group, be xn.

Exclude the speaker, therefore we have xn – 1.

Let the first person of the group be xa, followed by xb, etc.  All of these are one of the group, any of which could be addressed as “you”, just as the whole group, less the speaker.

Therefore, from xa to xn – 1, = 2nd person(s) summed.

In conclusion:

Let all x from xa to xn – 1, scream for ice cream, and I will scream along!

This last sentence, by addition of the two clauses, is equal to xn.

Little details that one book leaves out, may be very important in understanding some arcane matter in a text – and the students exist who will ask such questions.  Let it not be asked, “Why does the teacher not know?”


August 9-10, 2018


© 2018, Paul Karl Moeller

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