I'm looking for some comparative analysis that would indicate how imperative meaning can be built in various languages by using grammatical moods other than imperative.

The reason is that in many languages you can build a phrase with suggestive or imperative meaning by using other tenses/moods/aspects, not necessarily imperative or suggestive.

TL;DR samples

"At liever eens wat minder!" (lit. "ate rather once somewhat less) means "better eat a bit less" (link). In this case, at, a past perfect form of eten, forms an imperative, something like "if you ate less".

Russian is maybe even more vivid example. In fact, you can build an imperative using almost any verbal tense:

  • Imperative: пойди за пивом ("go for a beer");
  • Indefinite: встать! ("to stand up!"); it's rude but commonly used in army;
  • Past singular: пошёл за пивом! ("{you} went for a beer!") - warning, it's a very rude form;
  • Past plural: пошли за пивом ({we} went for a beer) means "let's..." - unlike above, it sounds very friendly;
  • Present singular: сейчас ты встаёшь и идёшь за пивом ("now you are standing up and going for a beer");
  • Present plural: идём за пивом ("{we are currently} going for a beer"), again, it's a "let's" form;
  • Future singular: сейчас ты встанешь и пойдёшь за пивом ("now you will stand up and go for a beer")
  • Future plural: пойдём за пивом ("{we will} go for a beer"), again, it's a "let's" form;

Ironically, imperative case does not necessarily mean imperative:

  • пойди я за пивом вчера, не пришлось бы идти сегодня ("imperative_go I for beer yesterday, there would be no need to go today") — this denotes subjunctive mood;
  • хорошее пиво, скажи? ("good beer, imperative_say?") - "...isn't it?" form;

Is there any comparison chart for imperative in different languages?

  • 6
    I think you are confusing morphology with function. You could refer to any form of words used to convey a command or suggestion as "imperative", but I don't thank that is terribly useful, and if you talk about imperative forms in the same sentence, that is utterly confusing.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 5, 2013 at 22:54
  • @ColinFine Exactly. In many languages, function and formal morphology are strongly linked. In English, using past tense (you went), how many meanings (functions) are you able to convey? Not many, I guess, and imperative is not included. Note, I'm not talking about indirect speech or phraseology. For instance, subjunctive mood ("if I may have your attention please") also may convey a "soft" imperative, and it also presents in many languages. This is not the case for my question. Jan 6, 2013 at 9:48
  • But your question is an exposition of the fact that form and function are not nearly so strongly linked as it is traditional to claim!
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 6, 2013 at 10:17
  • @ColinFine That's why I'm asking for help finding some comparison chart to see how the things are in different languages. Jan 6, 2013 at 11:39
  • 1
    @bytebuster "In many languages, function and formal morphology are strongly linked." Is this the case? From the Stanford Encycl. of Philosophy on illocutionary force: "Just as content underdetermines force and force underdetermines content; so too even grammatical mood together with content underdetermine force." E.g. for a present progressive "You're coming with us." you can think of contexts where it's a threat, an invitation, a promise, an assertion, a suggestion, and I'm sure many more.
    – lapropriu
    Jan 9, 2013 at 1:28

3 Answers 3


Some resources on imperatives cross-linguistically:

Aikhenvald, Alexandra. 2010. Imperatives and commands. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Khrakovskiĭ, Viktor Samuilovich. 2001. Typology of imperative constructions. Muenchen: Lincom Europa.

van der Auwera, Johan & Dobrushina, Nina & Goussev, Valentin. 2011. Imperative-Hortative Systems. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 72. Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/72

van der Auwera, Johan & Lejeune, Ludo (with Pappuswamy, Umarani & Goussev, Valentin). 2011. The Morphological Imperative. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 70. Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/70

Also, there's something wrong with your terminology.

At first, there's no such thing as the "imperative" tense. The imperative is usually analyzed as a type of mood, because it expresses the speaker's attitude (i.e. modality).

Secondly, you misanalyzed/miscategoried the forms in your examples (e.g. the "indefinite" tense etc.).


As a native speaker of Dutch, I consider the example ("at liever eens wat minder") to be non-standard, though there may well be dialects in which this is grammatical. Still, it is true that standard Dutch has a 'past tense imperative' (or whatever grammarians really call it). These are formed in a somewhat different manner: "Had liever wat minder gegeten", literally "had rather eaten a bit less", meaning "you had better eaten less". This is a common construction, the most frequent specimen probably being "Had dat meteen gezegd!" ("If only you had said that right away!").

  • Thank you for an insight. Did I understand you correctly, Had liever wat minder gegeten can be accurately translated as "you should eat less"? In this case, I think, such form exists in many languages. Jan 7, 2013 at 2:18
  • @bytebuster: It rather means, you should have eaten less, a past hypothetical.
    – Cerberus
    May 9, 2013 at 5:58

I don't think you'll find a chart quite like what you're looking for, although we can give examples from particular languages.

Cantonese has an imperative formed with a perfect aspect marker:

sik6       zo2          keoi5       laa1
eat        PERF         3SG         SFP
Eat it up (already!)

It has the connotation of impatience or exasperation which the regular imperative (formed with the bare verb) does not. Cantonese, like Mandarin, lacks tense-marking.

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