German/Grammar/Imperatives

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Imperatives[edit | edit source]

We now talk about how to make requests, give instructions, issue orders, and other ways of telling someone else what to do.

Terminology[edit | edit source]

The Imperative is a special verb conjugation used to form requests and commands. Grammarians call it a mood rather than a tense since it's not a function of time, but it seems more convenient to place the Imperative in a category of it's own. In this section we'll be talking about the grammatical Imperative. German, like English, has many ways of expressing one's wishes, and many of them do not involve a special form of the verb. For example you can say "Would you bring me some tea?" Grammatically, this is a question though it's intended as a request. You can also say "I'd like you to bring me some tea." Again, this is really a request but this time it has the form of a statement. The grammatical imperative is "Bring me some tea." This sounds rather impolite in English and the German equivalent would sound equally impolite. We'll ignore the forms that are not grammatical imperatives here because their grammar is covered under the corresponding verb and sentence forms. Though it may be impolite depending on the circumstances, the grammatical imperative is still used quite often. There are actually two forms of imperative in German. We'll call the one which most closely resembles the imperative in English the imperative without a qualifier, and the second one the impersonal imperative.

Forming the imperative[edit | edit source]

The subject in an imperative sentence is the person you want to do whatever it is you want to be done. This means that not all person/number combinations make sense and the corresponding inflections do not exist. We'll cover each combination which does exist separately since there are slight differences in grammar and shades of meaning associated with each.

Imperative sentences follow the V1 plan like yes/no questions; in most cases you can change a question to an imperative just by changing the verb inflection and the question mark.

Second person singular (familiar)[edit | edit source]

The subject here is du and this form is used when addressing a single person you are on "du terms" with. To form the imperative here, simply remove the -st from the second person singular of the present tense. So stellen ("to place, set"), which is stellst in the second person singular, becomes stell as an imperative.

  • Stell du die Teller auf den Tisch. – "Place the plates on the table."

The du here is optional and usually dropped; it's still there grammatically though since it remains the subject. It would be left in if you wanted to stress the du for some reason. So a more normal phrasing would be:

  • Stell die Teller auf den Tisch. – "Place the plates on the table."

But you would normally soften this with bitte – "please". This can be added as a preamble, postable, or as an adverb after the verb.

  • Bitte stell die Teller auf den Tisch. – "Please place the plates on the table."
  • Stell bitte die Teller auf den Tisch. – "Please place the plates on the table."
  • Stell die Teller auf den Tisch, bitte. – "Place the plates on the table, please."

Note that you can use bitte equally well with the other person/number combinations. Another softening word used in spoken German is mal, which is difficult to translate directly into English, but lends a certain amount of casualness to the request. Unlike bitte, it follows the verb.

  • Stell mal die Teller auf den Tisch. – "Place the plates on the table (if you don't mind)."

If the verb stem ends with an 's' sound, then you only add -t to form the second person singular, and so you only drop the -t:

  • Sitz hier, bitte. – "Sit here, please."

You can optionally add an -e ending to the verb with no change in meaning. Verbs which add -est in the second person would leave the -e part anyway.

  • Arbeite hart. – "Work hard."

Verbs ending in -ig will always have a final -e as well. Presumably this is because the g in the -ig ending is usually soft in German, and the -e helps to keep the hard g sound.

  • Beleidige sie nicht. – "Don't offend her."

Remember that stem changing verbs have a vowel change in the second person singular. This change is normally carried over to the imperative.

  • Gib mir die Löffel. – "Give me the spoons." (From geben)

However, if the change is to add an umlaut, then it is not carried over to the imperative:

  • Lauf! – "Run!" (From laufen, which is a stem changing verb with du läufst for the second person.)

Separable verbs remain separated in the imperative, with the prefix placed at the end of the sentence as usual:

  • Fang an. – "Begin." (From anfangen.)

Of the irregular verbs we've seen, the only ones that don't follow the above rule are:

  • haben
    • Hab keine Angst! – "Have no fear!"
  • werden
    • Werd nicht hysterisch! – "Don't become hysterical!"
  • wissen
    • Wisse mehr. – "Know more."
  • sein
    • Sei aufmerksam. – "Be alert."

There are irregular verbs we haven't covered yet, but the imperative isn't applicable to them.

Second person plural (familiar)[edit | edit source]

The subject in this case is ihr and this form is used when addressing multiple people you are on "du terms" with. In this case the imperative is the same as the present tense, only the position of the verb tells you that it's the imperative. As with the singular case, the subject ihr is usually dropped but is still there in the sense that it determines the verb conjugation:

  • Stellt die Teller auf den Tisch. – "Place the plates on the table." (To multiple people.)

Keep in mind that even though the English forms are the same, you have to use the correct ending in German to avoid confusion. This might be important; if you spot danger approaching (an angry troll, for example) you need to shout Lauft! to get your companions to run away. Shouting Lauf! may just restult in puzzled looks as they try to figure out which one of them you're talking to.

Second person (formal)[edit | edit source]

The subject in this case is Sie and this form is used when addressing one or more people you are on "Sie terms" with. As with the Sie form of the present tense, this is usually the same as the infinitive. However, the imperative of sein here is seien. Unlike the familiar forms, the subject Sie is never dropped.

  • Stellen Sie die Teller auf den Tisch. – "Place the plates on the table." (Formal form.)
  • Seien Sie aufmerksam. – "Be alert." (Formal form.)

Note that, unlike the infinitive, separable verbs are still separated.

  • Fangen Sie an. – "Begin." (Formal form.)

First person plural[edit | edit source]

The subject in this case is wir and this form is used when you want to suggest something for a group of people including yourself. The verb form is the same as for the present tense, which for wir is usually the same as the infinitive. As with Sie, the subject is never dropped. The form for sein is again seien.

  • Gehen wir ins Kino. – "Let's go to the movies."
  • Fangen wir an. – "Let's begin."
  • Seien wir klug. – "Let's be smart."

There is a third person form as well, but this is closely related to the special subjunctive and we'll cover it in the corresponding section.

The impersonal imperative[edit | edit source]

This is a feature of German which does not exist in English, and so it can be tricky to translate. (It's not really even that common in German, but it is used frequently enough that you should be familiar with it.) It's used when no one in particular is being addressed, so, for example, for recipes, instruction booklets, signs, etc. Its form is simply the infinitive, placed at the end of the sentence where the infinitive normally goes. Since there is no finite verb, this might be called the V0 sentence plan, but this is the only time it's used. You can translate this in a number of ways, but none capture the German sense exactly so you must settle for the closest match under the circumstances. For example, you might see this in a recipe for bread:

  • Den Teig kneten. – "(Literally) To knead the dough."

You might use the imperative in English:

  • "Knead the dough."

Or you could use the passive voice to avoid having a person as the subject:

  • "The dough is kneaded."

Or you could use a vague pronoun like "you" or "one":

  • "One kneads the dough."

Just as it's customary in English to place a question mark at the end of an imperative to form computer prompts, German computer prompts are usually formed by placing a question mark at the end of the impersonal imperative:

  • Änderungen speichern? Ja Nein – "Save changes? Yes No"
  • Spiel verlassen? – "Exit game?"


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