In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Imperatives

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Databases
  • Negative Imperatives
  • Clitic Placement (Balkan and Romance)
  • Coordinated Imperatives
  • Embedding

Linguistics Imperatives
Eric Potsdam, Daniel Edmiston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0107


The term imperative is used in a number of ways in the linguistics literature. In one use, imperative is a semantic modality. Imperatives are directives conveying an illocutionary force of commanding, prohibiting, suggesting, permitting, or requesting by the speaker. The typical function of imperatives is to get the addressee(s) to do or not to do something. In another use, imperative is a clause type (alongside interrogatives and declaratives). It is a specific morphosyntactic structure restricted to conveying directive modality. The two different uses of the term can be illustrated using English: directive modality can be expressed through interrogatives, Can you please get there before five o’clock?; infinitives, I need you to be there before five o’clock; and subjunctives, It’s imperative that you be there before five o’clock; and all of these can convey what the imperative clause type Be there before five o’clock! conveys. The term imperative is not used consistently in one sense—modality versus clause type—or the other in the literature discussed in this article. Individual authors carve out their own empirical domain, sometimes understanding imperative in both senses. This is because languages often have an imperative clause type that cannot be used in some semantic domain, say prohibitions, and so the language will use another clause type to express this type of imperative modality, but researchers may be interested in this clause type as well. They may not, however, be interested in all ways in which directive modality is expressed. Works cited are largely from the typological, functional, and formal linguistics literatures written in English. No attempt has been made to represent the vast amount of descriptive work on imperatives in the world’s languages. The imperative receives relatively little attention in the linguistic literature. At the same time, most languages have an imperative clause type, and there are important cross-linguistic generalizations about their form, meaning, and use. Imperatives thus have the potential to inform typology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

General Overviews

The references in this section provide general overviews of the morphosyntax of positive and negative imperatives cross-linguistically. Aikhenvald 2010 is the most extensive, taking examples from almost seven hundred languages. The author’s observations build on those initially made in Sadock and Zwicky 1985 and refined in König and Siemund 2007. The latter references situate the range of variation in morphosyntactic strategies for marking positive and negative imperatives in relation to other clause types, notably declaratives and interrogatives. The first two chapters of Xrakovskij 2001 provide a functional and typological perspective and questionnaire. van der Wurff 2007 is a thorough history of the analysis of the imperative clause in generative grammar and a discussion of early-21st-century issues. Zhang 1990 explores some of these theoretical issues, notably going beyond English.

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2010. Imperatives and commands. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The only book-length, cross-linguistic study of imperatives to date. Covers grammatical characteristics of positive imperatives, negative imperatives, and commands, and relates them to larger cultural and functional concerns. Includes a guide for fieldworkers investigating imperatives in underdocumented languages.

  • König, Ekkehard, and Peter Siemund. 2007. Speech act distinctions in grammar. In Clause structure. Vol. 1 of Language typology and syntactic description. 2d ed. Edited by Timothy Shopen, 276–324. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An updated counterpart to Sadock and Zwicky 1985. Discusses morphosyntactic variation in the expression of imperatives within the context of declaratives and interrogatives. Also discusses related constructions such as hortatives, optatives, and minor sentences types such as exclamatives.

  • Sadock, Jerrold M., and Arnold Zwicky. 1985. Speech act distinctions in syntax. In Clause structure. Vol. 1 of Language typology and syntactic description. Edited by Timothy Shopen, 155–196. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Preliminary survey of similarities and differences across imperatives cross-linguistically. Precursor to König and Siemund 2007.

  • van der Wurff, Wim. 2007. Imperative clauses in generative grammar: An introduction. In Imperative clauses in generative grammar: Studies in honour of Frits Beukema. Edited by Wim van der Wurff, 1–94. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    An overview of the analytical issues in imperative syntax within generative grammar. Contains numerous references and critical discussion.

  • Xrakovskij, Victor S., ed. 2001. Typology of imperative constructions. Munich: Lincom Europa.

    A volume prepared by the Language Typology Workshop of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Linguistic Research. Chapter 1 provides a functional perspective on similarities and differences among imperatives cross-linguistically. Chapter 2 is a questionnaire on imperative morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics for a typologically oriented investigation of individual languages. The remaining twenty-three chapters describe imperatives in a diverse range of languages. A revised and translated version of Victor S. Xrakovskij, ed., Tipologija imperativnyx konstrukcij (Saint Petersburg, Russia: Nauka, 1992).

  • Zhang, Shi. 1990. The status of imperatives in theories of grammar. PhD diss., University of Arizona.

    A wide-ranging study of the imperative. Presents both Government-Binding and Categorial Grammar analyses of the English imperative. Includes a historical overview of generative treatment of the imperatives and cross-linguistic observations.

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