And That’s an Order! The Imperative Guide to the French Imperative
Tired of thinking about how to ask questions, and more interested in getting results in the language?
Then you’re ready to take command!
Take command of the imperative mood, that is.
Time to show French who’s boss.
- What is the imperative mood and what is it used for?
- Imperative conjugations
- Imperative word order
What is the imperative mood and what is it used for?
That’s right, the imperative verb form is not a tense but a mood, which means that its usage indicates the attitude of the speaker toward the action/state of the verb.
To get a sense of other French moods, you’ll want to check out the subjunctive and the indicative as well as the conditional.
Tenses, on the other hand, refer to the time and completion (or lack thereof) of the verb’s action.
To get familiar with all the French tenses, you’ll need to master the present and take on the imperfect, as well as the other past and future tenses.
Think of it this way: The tense is the punctual, time-obsessed type, whereas the mood is the more creative, emotional type—it is essential for adding feeling to verbs. One is not better than the other; they’re simply different.
Furthermore, tense and mood need each other. They work together to make a verb precise, reflecting both temporality and feeling. Each mood can be expressed with a certain number of tenses, but not all moods can be expressed with all of the tenses.
While the indicative and subjunctive moods have present, future and past tenses, the imperative mood is only used in the present tense.
The imperative mood is used to:
- Express desire
- Give an order
- Recommend something
- Make a request
- Give advice
The imperative mood is only conjugated for three grammatical persons: tu (second person singular for the informal “you”), vous (second person formal for “you” or the second person plural “you all”) and nous (first person plural “we”).
For regular -er verbs, the tu form of the imperative is the same as the indicative minus the final s. The imperative conjugations for nous and vous are the exact same as the present indicative. Piece of cake, right? Let’s take a look at some examples:
donner (to give)
Donne cette lettre à Christian, s’il te plaît. (Give this letter to Christian, please.)
Donnons les livres que nous ne lisons plus à la bibliothèque. (Let’s give the books we don’t read anymore to the library.)
Donnez votre nom complet. (Give your full name.)
manger (to eat)
Mange ta soupe. (Eat your soup.)
Mangeons avant de sortir. (Let’s eat before going out.)
Mangez ce que vous voulez. (Eat what you want.)
Note: When the tu command of an -er is followed by the pronoun y or en, the final s is not dropped from the verb conjugation. Manges-en (eat some) is a case in point.
The imperative conjugations for regular -re verbs are the same as for the present infinitive conjugations. Here are some examples:
descendre (to descend)
Descends tout de suite ! (Come down right away!)
Descendons cette montagne lentement. (Let’s descend this mountain slowly.)
Descendez la côte. (Go down the hill.)
vendre (to sell)
Vends ton vélo ; il est trop petit pour toi. (Sell your bike; it’s too small for you.)
Vendons notre maison ; elle est trop grande pour nous deux. (Let’s sell our house; it’s too big for the two of us.)
Vendez vos tableaux plus chers ; ils sont magnifiques ! (Sell your paintings for more money; they’re great!)
prendre (to take)
Prends ton temps. (Take your time.)
Prenons une sieste. Je suis épuisé ! (Let’s take a nap. I’m exhausted!)
Prenez vos médicaments après manger. (Take your medicine after eating).
Note: Although prendre is an irregular -re verb, in the case of the imperative mood, it follows a “regular” pattern.
Conjugating regular -ir verbs in the imperative mood is also the same as the present indicative conjugations of the tu, nous and vous forms.
finir (to finish)
Finis ton petit-déjeuner. (Finish your breakfast.)
Finissons ce film plus tard. (Let’s finish this movie later.)
Finissez le gâteau sans moi. (Finish the cake without me.)
choisir (to choose)
Choisis une date qui te convient. (Choose a date that works for you.)
Choisissons un plat piquant à manger. (Let’s choose a spicy dish to eat.)
Choisissez judicieusement. (Choose wisely.)
partir (to leave)
Pars d’ici ! (Get out of here!)
Partons loin d’ici. (Let’s get [far] away from here.)
Partez d’ici à midi. (Leave here at noon.)
Note: Although partir is an irregular verb, it behaves “regularly” in the imperative mood.
Got it? Good. Now let’s move on to some exceptions! After all, what would a French grammar lesson be without some exceptions?
Plain ol’ irregular verbs
Here are your basic irregulars and how they work.
aller (to go)
Va t’allonger dans ta chambre. (Go lie down in your room.)
Allons nous promener un petit peu. (Let’s walk for a bit.)
Allez au marché. (Go to the market.)
Note: When the tu command of aller is followed by the pronoun y, the final s is not dropped from the verb conjugation. This is why you’d say Vas-y (Go ahead!).
avoir (to have)
Aie confiance dans tes instincts. (Have faith in your instincts.)
Ayons confiance dans nos capacités. (Let’s trust our abilities.)
Ayez une attitude positive. (Have a positive attitude.)
être (to be)
Sois à l’heure ! (Be on time!)
Soyons calme ! (Let’s be calm!)
Soyez vigilant ! (Be vigilant!)
savoir (to know)
Sache que je suis là pour toi. (Know that I’m here for you.)
Sachons garder notre calme. (Literally translates to “Let’s know how to keep our calm,” but it means “Let’s keep calm.”)
Sachez qu’on vous écoute. (Know that we’re listening to you.)
vouloir (to want to)
Vouloir is a bit of a doozy. Only the vous form of the imperative is used in everyday speech and it is used to construct several formules de politesse (polite forms of address) in French.
In the context of formal email exchange, for example, it is not uncommon to see:
Veuillez trouver ci-joint… (Please find attached…)
When you enter establishments like banks or doctor’s offices, a secretary may tell you:
Veuillez patienter dans la salle d’attente. (Please wait in the waiting room.)
Imperative word order
Now, there are some final bits and bobs to get in order. Yep, I’m talking about word order. Let’s look at the imperative word order when dealing with the negative form and pronouns.
The imperative in the negative form
The imperative mood exists in the affirmative and negative form. Forming the negative imperative, in which you tell someone not to do something, is rather easy: All you have to do is put the negative structure around the pronouns and the verb. Check out these examples:
Ne pars pas tout de suite ! (Don’t leave right away!)
Ne sois pas en retard ! (Don’t be late!)
Ne mangeons pas trop ! (Let’s not eat too much!)
The imperative with direct and indirect object pronouns
Here’s a quick refresher on direct and indirect object pronouns, in case you need it.
A direct object is a person or a thing that receives the action of the verb. Direct object pronouns replace direct object nouns. They must reflect the gender and quantity of the noun they replace.
An indirect object refers to the noun to/for whom the action of the verb is occurring. An indirect object is usually preceded by pour (for) or à (to, at). The indirect object responds to the question “To whom?” or “For whom?” Indirect object pronouns replace the indirect object.
Okay! Reprenons l’impératif (Let’s go back to the imperative)!
In the affirmative imperative, the pronouns follow the verb and are connected with hyphens. Let’s take a look:
Mangez le sandwich! (Eat the sandwich!) becomes Mangez-le ! (Eat it!)
Lisez la deuxième page ! (Read the second page!) becomes Lisez-la ! (Read it!)
Lisons le livre ensemble ! (Let’s read the book together!) becomes Lisons-le ! (Let’s read it!)
The pronouns me and te change to moi and toi in the imperative form:
Laisse-moi tranquille. (Leave me alone.)
Regarde-toi dans le miroir. (Look at yourself in the mirror.)
Okay! Got it? Now, écoutez-moi bien (listen up)! Let’s move on to a trickier case—when a sentence has both a direct object and an indirect object. The order of pronouns differs for the affirmative imperative and the negative imperative.
For the affirmative imperative, the order of direct object and indirect object pronouns is as follows:
le, la, les/moi, toi, lui/nous, vous, leur/y/en
Offrons le cadeau à Marie et Jean ! (Let’s give the gift to Marie and Jean!)
In this sentence, the gift is the direct object and Marie and Jean are the indirect objects. With pronouns, the sentence becomes:
Offrons-le-leur ! (Let’s give it to them!)
For the negative imperative, the negative structures ne…pas (not) and ne…jamais (never) surround the pronouns and the verb. There are no hyphens, and the order of the direct and indirect object pronouns is a bit different:
me, te, nous, vous/le, la, les/lui, leur/y/en
N’offrons pas le cadeau à Marie et Jean. (Let’s not give the present to Marie and Jean.)
Ne le leur offrons pas ! (Let’s not give it to them!)
Whew! That’s all folks!
As you can see, the imperative can be tricky business, so make sure you review them. You can practice with study resources such as online quizzes.
You can also get more exposure by consuming authentic French media. Doing so will help you see the imperative mood as it’s used in realistic French conversations. They can also let you learn plenty of specific command statements and in what situations they’re utilized.
French music, TV shows, radio and books are all good options and easy to find online. There are also the authentic videos on the language learning program FluentU. Each of its clips have interactive subtitles that provide individual word translations and grammar details, letting you dissect usages of the imperative and other moods within spoken phrases.
Révisez bien l’impératif (study the imperative well), and your French will immediately sound more confident and poised.