English English language Grammar Linguistics Usage

The imperative’s new clothes?

Q: I’ve searched all over the Internet for an explanation of the third-person imperative, but everybody seems to have a different opinion. I’m thoroughly confused. If you can help, I’ll be forever thankful.

A: Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the “third-person imperative.” But there are second-person imperatives that are addressed to third-person subjects, as we’ll explain.

The imperative mood is used for expressing commands, requests, and so on. So by its very nature an imperative is directly addressed to someone, and an imperative sentence typically has the second-person “you” as its implied subject.

This “you” is generally omitted, as in “Have a drink” … “Hurry up!” … “Look!” … “Be a pal.” But sometimes it’s present: “You be careful” … “Go away, you!”

At times, the implied “you” is represented by “someone” or “somebody” or some other subject that’s grammatically in the third person. Examples: “Someone please make coffee” …  “Dim the lights, somebody” … “Those with tickets form a line to the right” … “Passengers please remain seated.”

Those are examples of imperatives in which the people being addressed are expressed in the third person and not as “you.” But nevertheless, these are all second-person constructions, because the speaker directly addresses the subject.

As Otto Jespersen writes in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933), “Any imperative is virtually in the second person, even if seemingly addressed to a ‘third person.’ ”

Jespersen uses these examples: “Oh, please, someone go in and tell her” … “And bring out my hat, somebody, will you.”  He says that in such sentences, words like “someone” or “somebody” mean “one of you present.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains that when an imperative is addressed to “somebody” or “all those in the front row,” the subjects “are also interpreted as ‘somebody among you,’ ‘all those of you in the front row.’ ”

So don’t be misled by imperatives addressed to subjects expressed in the third-person. These are still second-person constructions.

We found another explanation in A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis of the English Imperative (2012), by Hidemitsu Takahashi.

The author says “an inherent feature of the imperative” is “the second person of the understood subject.”

This is true, Takahashi says, even when an imperative has an apparently third-person subject, as in (a) “Someone get the barf bag!” (b) “Everyone stand up!” and (c ) “All the boys come forward.”

As the author writes, “The form of imperative subjects such as someone and all the boys is clearly in the third person but their referent is in the second person.”

Those subjects, Takahashi says, are “only superficially in the third person” and “are conceptually in the second person, where the imperative is directed at non-individuated addressees”—that is, to no one in particular.

Even when you’re mentally speaking to yourself (“Where did I put my keys? Let me see. Stop and think now”), you’re addressing yourself from the outside, as if you were speaking to a second-person “you.”

In fact, the addressee doesn’t have to be a person at all—you could be swearing at your car: “Start, dammit!” The car may not be a person, but you’re addressing it as if it were—in the second person.

In short, there is no “third-person imperative.”

Many grammarians, however, recognize another kind of imperative. The Cambridge Grammar calls this the “1st person inclusive let-imperative”—as in the examples “Let’s open the window” and “Let’s borrow Kim’s car.”

Don’t misunderstand us here. This is not the same “let” as the one used to mean “allow,” as in “Let them go” or “Just let the baby cry.” Those are second-person imperatives addressed to an assumed “you.”

This “1st person inclusive let-imperative,” sometimes called the “let’s imperative,” has an implied “we” as its subject. The command, request, or whatever is addressed to the speaker plus one or more others, so it’s in the first-person plural. (Some grammarians, in fact, call it the “first-person plural imperative.”)

As Cambridge says, the verb “let” in sentences like “Let’s open the window” and “Let’s borrow Kim’s car” has been “bleached” of the old meaning (“allow”), and now “serves as a marker of this special type of imperative construction.”

Although all of this may seem complicated, the imperative form itself couldn’t be simpler—it’s always identical to the bare (that is, the “to”-less) infinitive. And it can be complete in itself, since an imperative sentence can consist of only a single word: “Eat!”

Imperatives are probably among the most primitive grammatical constructions, and they’re an indispensable feature of language. What would we do without them?

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