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What Is the Imperative?
The imperative mood is found in both English and French and is a very commonly used sentence structure. In short, it is used to tell someone what to do, be it a parent telling a child something, a commanding officer talking to a soldier, or you talking to your pet cat. In English, we see two different forms of the imperitive: the you form and the we form. For example, you might say, "Close the door," when talking to someone else. This is the you form where the understood subject of the sentence, the person who will be closing the door, is "you." The other form, the we form, is when you are giving a general command to a group that you are part of. You might say to your friends, "Let's go see a movie!" This is the we form, a suggestion or command to those around you, including yourself.
French, on the other hand, has three forms. They are the same, really, but remember: in French, there are two words for "you," tu and vous, the familiar and the formal. As a result, there are separate forms for each, and which one you pick follows the same rule for deciding between tu and vous in any situation, tu for a single person, someone you are familiar with or close to, and vous for any group or a single person that you are not close to such as a boss, teacher, or someone you have just met.
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Forming the Imperative
Thankfully, just like in English, forming the imperative is fairly straightforward. In French, there are four main verb groups: er verbs, ir verbs, re verbs, and the irregular verbs. Let's review the main group conjugations for tu, vous, and nous:
-er verb (example: parler)
- tu parles
- vous parlez
- nous parlons
-ir verb (example: finir)
- tu finis
- vous finissez
- nous finissons
-re verb (example: vendre)
- tu vends
- vous vendez
- nous vendons
The imperative, for all but one of the above cases, takes the exact same form. The only exception is -er verbs when you are conjugating for tu. In other words, for any of the other forms above, the ones except -er verbs with tu, to form the imperative, this is what you do:
- Regular sentence: Tu choisis le film. (You're choosing the movie.)
- Imperative: Choisis le film. (Choose the film.)
You'll notice that in English, we drop the subject, in this case, you. In French, you do the same thing. The verb stays the same! This makes it very simple to form the imperative—no new verb endings to learn!
The one exception to those forms, -er verbs conjugated for tu, is very simple. The only change you make is dropping the final -s. For example:
- Regular sentence: Tu fermes la porte. (You're closing the door.)
- Imperative: Ferme la porte. (Close the door.)
You will notice that the verb at first, fermes, has an -s at the end. But in the imperative, we drop that -s, so we just have an -e at the end. Other than that, there are no other changes.
So for the imperative, just remember: drop the subject, and unless you have an -er verb with tu, leave the verb as it is. If it's an -er verb with tu, just drop the last -s, and you're done!
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Irregular Imperative Verbs
As with most conjugations, there are a few irregularities with the imperative. There are four verbs with irregular conjugations: avoir, être, savoir, and vouloir. Here are their conjugations, listed in the order of tu, vous, and then nous:
- être – sois, soyez, soyons
- avoir – aie, ayez, ayons
- savoir – sache, sachez, sachons
- vouloir – veuille, veuillez, veuillons
These forms may seem a bit odd, but there are only four irregulars in the imperative, so it's not too bad. And thankfully, you will see these same forms come up with other tenses, so learning them will help you then as well.
The only other irregularity with the imperative is with verbs that don't fit into one of the standard categories. Most of them conjugate just like all other verbs, using the exact same forms with no changes. The exception is verbs that conjugate like -er verbs, but aren't, such as ouvrir. These verbs follow the same rules as regular -er verbs, even though they aren't. For example:
- Regular sentence: Tu ouvres la fenêtre. (You're opening the window.)
- Imperative: Ouvre la fenêtre. (Open the window.)
Because they conjugate like -er verbs, they have the same exception; if the subject is tu, drop the final -s.
Hopefully now, you will be able to form the imperative like a pro!
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For more information on the imperative in English, please see Lesson Plan for Teaching the Imperative Mood in Spanish.