In English, it's widely held that imperative verbs have "invisible" subjects, on the syntactic level. For example, we see look at yourself in the mirror, rather than *look at you in the mirror, which implies that there's some invisible "you"-like entity in the subject position, which just doesn't appear on the surface.

Is this a universal? Or are there languages in which imperatives have no syntactic subject at all?

(P.S. For some languages, there may be no way to know whether there's an "invisible" subject or not, since it wouldn't affect other words the way English pronouns can. I'm not as interested in these cases: I'm specifically curious if there are languages that would show evidence of an invisible subject, but don't. In other words, I'm looking for evidence of absence, not just absence of evidence.)

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    Your example "Look at you" is interesting, because it is actually completely acceptable. Please remove the star. – Greg Lee Aug 23 '19 at 3:14
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    @GregLee Good point, though I think that phrase is one of Quang Phuc Dong's famous sentences without overt grammatical subject. I added a prepositional phrase which forces the other interpretation. – Draconis Aug 23 '19 at 3:21
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    @curiousdannii First and third person count too! But I'm interested specifically in imperatives without overt subjects, since, well…an imperative with an overt subject doesn't have an invisible subject. – Draconis Aug 23 '19 at 4:20
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    @curiousdannii True! Now that I think about it, if you find a language that requires an overt subject, that would be a completely valid answer. (Latin for example has optional subjects in third-person imperatives, but they can also be left "invisible", and I think either way reflexives are used—third-person imperatives are rare enough that I haven't been able to find a specific example, so I asked on Latin.SE about that.) – Draconis Aug 23 '19 at 4:32
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    "Subjectless imperatives are rare in Icelandic (Einarsson 1945:28-29), and they are extremely rare in colloquial spoken Icelandic. This fact generally goes unmentioned in the generative literature." Bohnacker, Ute (1998) Icelandic plus English: language dierentiation and functional categories in a successively bilingual child, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: etheses.dur.ac.uk/5043 – Alex B. Aug 23 '19 at 12:49

An interesting, non-exotic, case is German. In the familiar register you can say “geh nach Hause”, “geht nach Hause”, with implicit subject, but you can also say “geh du nach Hause” and “geht Ihr nach Hause” with explicit subject and a slightly more insistent tone. On the other hand, in the polite register you need to say “gehen Sie nach Hause”; the explicit pronoun cannot be omitted.

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  • Ah, perfect! I'd forgotten that "Sie" couldn't be omitted. – Draconis Aug 23 '19 at 14:55
  • Assertive "Sie gehen jetzt besser" is undecidable between indicative and imperative, up to word order. Which is, in my humble opinion, very much on purpose, because a command is invariably impolite, completely loosing the pretense of equal eye sight. – vectory Oct 15 '19 at 16:18
  • The example is also not enough to show ... what are you trying to show; The question was to disprove the universal account, no? Anyway, "Sie" could be influenced by the self reflexive pronoun. Bavarian contracts "gehens, sehens", Low German says gehn se, sehn se; I'd even say "Gehn'se Hände Waschen", though not really acceptable, would be indecidable between apellative and akkusative; that's "Gehen Sie sich Ihre Hände waschen"; Yet, "sehn sich das mal an" is well acceptable. This strikes even myself as aimless theorizing, however ... – vectory Oct 15 '19 at 16:44

There are several exceptions to this rule (etc. Icelandic, Tagalog), see Nikolaeva 2007 for more details.


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Tagalog and Newari

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That is why Jerry and Kissine write that such strong universal claims about imperatives are “perhaps ill-advised” (p. 102).


(writing from a phone, sorry about poor formatting abs not giving you examples)

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  • Very interesting! I'll look up those sources, but if you get a chance to add some examples before them they'd be much appreciated. – Draconis Aug 23 '19 at 14:56
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    @Draconis added screenshots - they should be converted to text though. feel free to change my answer, if you have more time - you're more than welcome! – Alex B. Aug 23 '19 at 20:44

I think the problems associated with defining "imperative" non-circularly are sufficiently large that they preclude answering the question. It is presumably clear that meaning and usage can't distinguish imperatives from other constructions such as subjunctives. Imperatives are not definable morphologically (there are not always bare verbs -- see for instance Sanskrit with imperatives inflected for all persons, Finnish with imperatives for all persons besides 1s). They are also not definable as "the verb forms that you get just in case there is no overt subject" -- there are plenty of pro-drop languages which don't require overt subjects (pronouns or NPs).

We often take the reflexivization facts to be sufficient evidence that the subject of an imperative must be 2nd person in English. This argument is weakened a bit by famous Dong 1967 examples like "Fuck/screw/forget/damn you" (where you can dispose of the problem by saying they aren't imperatives), and by "Everyone make yourself a sandwich" where we have an overt subject of an imperative that doesn't control reflexivization. Since subjects generally control verb agreement in English, Spanish, Greek, Sanskrit, Finnish and so on, we ought to conclude that if there is any subject agreement at all, we have proof that there is a covert subject.

Here is an imaginary scenario that could detect a subjectless imperative. Gwambomambo has a single bare-verb form "imperative" that doesn't indicate subject. It has obligatory person-and-number agreeing reflexive object pronouns. But in Gwambomambo, no reflexive can be the object of an imperative, instead there is also a special imperative object reflexive pronoun -- a form that doesn't agree with anything, which is selected because there isn't anything to agree with (no subject). If you could find this language, it could establish that the claim about there being covert subjects of imperatives is not universally true.

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    Personally, I interpret "Everyone make yourself a sandwich" as missing a comma, i.e. really "Everyone, make yourself a sandwich", where everyone is the equivalent of a vocative, not a subject. – LjL Aug 23 '19 at 14:20

It's not universal even in the Germanic tongues: Caution! Danger! Ger Vorsicht! are neither clearly verb nor noun, yet they are indeniably used as imperatives--to the point that caution has become a transitive verb (the suffix clearly marks it as an abstract noun, doesn't it?)--but they don't go with a subject, in my mind, at best with an anaphoric appelative, so those nouns are subject, object, verb, topic, focus, etc.

Very specifically, "Stopp" or "Halt!" don't inflect in German, although they could.

The stem sicht-, as in "Vorsicht" derives a noun that can't be easily confused with the verb sehen, imp sieh, "see", but it also derives a verb sichten "to inspect, scout, observe"; So I suppose Vorsicht derives from an appelative verb. Not to be confused with foresight, foresee, vorsehen, versehen, etc etc.

It should be quite interesting to find out where that came from. But it would blow this answer out of proportion. I really wonder how important imperatives, ejectives (poo, pfft, bah, which are also ejective in the phonetic sense, or all the flavours of ah, eh, hu, ohoh) and other kinds of short phrases were for language genesis. Just consider this exchange:

This be a stick-up!


Money, now!

Hands up!

It's the cavalary!

shot's fired from an unclear direction

Out, quick!

Noooo! Jonny! Oh Jonny! Oh no, lil john!

What!?! I'm all right, t'is but a scratch.

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