Just Do It! Your Ultimate Guide to Embracing the German Imperative
Okay, so German may not be the classic language of love.
But there is no better language for giving commands.
Dog trainers figured this out long ago!
Even if you don’t have a German Fido around, getting the hang of the imperative verb form is an essential step on your path to German fluency.
It can be tricky for native English speakers to get comfortable using the German imperative, unless speaking to children (or dogs!) for fear of seeming rude. The fact is, the German language is often simply more direct than English in many respects, and you’ll find the imperative form is used often in conversation.
Situations Where You’ll Find the Imperative to Be…Imperative!
You might be surprised at the number of situations you’re likely to encounter where you want to react spontaneously and quickly with an imperative expression. Of course, you do this unconsciously in your native language.
Let’s say you want to give a friend directions to a cafe a few blocks away.
You might say: “Cross the road, turn left and go straight ahead for two blocks, then take the next street on the right.”
In that simple sentence, you’ve already used four imperative verb constructions. Then say the same friend goes to cross the road without seeing a car approaching, and you yell “Watch out!” Again, another “imperative” situation—and one where you won’t want to be casting around for the right verb construction!
There are all kinds of circumstances that call for a direction, command or instruction. Here are a few more examples:
How about if you want to urge a colleague or friend to do something? You could say:
Du solltest das machen. (You should do it.)
But how much easier (and more natural) to simply say:
Mach das! (Do it!)
For longer explanations or lists, the imperative form really comes into its own.
Say the friend you directed to the cafe earlier survived their near miss with the car—and is now taking care of your apartment while you’re out of town for a few days. You have a few simple instructions for her.
You could deliver these in the present tense, but let’s face it, you’re likely to be here all afternoon. Here’s what your list might look like in the imperative:
Geieß die Pflanze alle zwei Tage. (Water the plants every two days.)
Hol die Post jeden Tag ab. (Collect the mail daily.)
Iss irgendwas aus dem Kühlschrank. (Eat anything you want from the fridge.)
Ruf mich an, wenn du etwas brauchst. (Call me if you need anything.)
Note: For separable verbs (above abholen and anrufen) the verb prefix travels to the end of the phrase.
Responding to Rudeness, Aggression or Generally Anti-social Behavior
These are probably the most satisfying opportunities you’ll have to apply the imperative—or conversely the most frustrating if you don’t know how to use it!
Chances are you won’t be so concerned about being polite when you’ve narrowly escaped being knocked off your bike by a passing motorist, or find yourself the subject of unwanted advances while out on the town. But you’ll certainly want to make yourself clear!
Hau ab! (Get lost!)
Sei still! (Be quiet!)
(A relatively polite form. Depending on the circumstances, you can also say halt’s Maul, meaning “shut your mouth” for a little more emphasis!)
Lass mich alleine! (Leave me alone!)
Mach das nicht! (Don’t do that!)
Pass auf! (Watch out!)
Do It! How to Build Your German Imperative Phrases
So far we’ve looked at examples of forming the imperative for du, i.e. the second person singular (informal).
To get the whole picture, we’ll need to look at the other three kinds: ihr, second person plural (informal), Sie, second person singular/plural (formal) and wir, first person plural. Fortunately, they all tend to follow relatively simple rules.
Second Person Singular (Informal)
Usually formed by taking the stem of the verb in present tense and dropping the “st.”
Let’s take the verb geben (to give).
Du gibst mir das Buch. (You give me the book.)
Gib mir das Buch! (Give me the book!)
Second Person Plural (Informal)
Don’t despair, it gets easier! When addressing a group of people informally, the imperative form stays the same as the present tense. You just drop the ihr (you).
Ihr gebt mir das Buch. (You (all) give me the book.)
Gebt mir das Buch! (Give me the book!)
Second Person Singular and Plural (Formal)
In the same way, when addressing an individual or group formally, once again you use the present tense form. However, the personal pronoun Sie (you) now comes after the verb.
Sie geben mir das Buch. (You give me the book.)
Geben Sie mir das Buch! (Give me the book!)
First Person Plural
Not just for those with multiple personalities, this one you’d use when addressing a group that includes yourself.
In its simplest form, it behaves exactly like the formal version of second person singular/plural. So, just like in the example above, wir (we) comes after the infinitive form of the verb.
Wir lesen. (We read.)
Lesen wir! (Let’s read!)
Note: You can also use the verb lassen (to let, or to leave) to give an imperative direction to a collective “we.” In this case, it works just like the du form that we looked at already, coupled with the infinitive version of the particular action verb. Because the subject (we) in this case is accusative, wir becomes uns, giving us:
Lass uns lesen! (Let’s read!)
Lass uns gehen! (Let’s go!)
Watch Out for Exceptions
Verbs Ending in -s, -z, -x or -ß
For these, only the -t is removed from the present tense form (not the whole -st). So:
Du sitzt. (You sit.)
Sitz! (Sit down!)
Special Cases: haben, sein and werden
These three commonly used verbs behave irregularly and deserve a closer look here, as follows:
haben (to have)
Du hast Angst. (You’re afraid.)
Hab kein Angst! (Don’t be afraid!)
sein (to be)
Du bist ruhig. (You’re calm.)
Sei ruhig! (Calm down!)
werden (to become)
Du wirst böse. (You get angry.)
Werde nicht böse! (Don’t get angry!)
Public Notices or Requests
These tend to be given in the infinitive form instead of the imperative, for example:
Bitte nicht rauchen. (Please don’t smoke.)
An Extra -e
Not so much an exception as a variation, you might see an extra -e added to the end of the imperative form for du at times. This used to be the way the form was written, and is still valid in written German, though these days no longer spoken.
Practice Your German Imperative Powers
Time to Mach Übung (get some practice)! It may not come naturally to use the imperative regularly at first. Get familiar with the form, and you’ll be all set to use it when that critical moment comes!
You’ve probably already discovered that music is a fantastic—and painless—way to increase your German dietary intake, as well as an unexpected source of many a grammar lesson.
But did you know a number of the classics in English have German counterparts? Take Komm gib mir dein Hand—can you spot the artist? (And, more importantly, the imperative verb!?)
Need some life guidance? The lifestyle section of your favorite German magazine or newspaper is bound to have a steady supply of those lists of tips and tricks to manage stress, improve your diet, work on your apartment’s feng shui—and who knows what else.
Not only are such lists an accessible way to practice reading German, but they’re also a good place to find the imperative. Take this one for instance.
With a Four-legged Friend
What did we say about those dog trainers? If you happen to be in a German-speaking country, chances are there’ll be some German-speaking dogs in your neighborhood.
What better way to practice than with an enthusiastic and above all non-judgmental Hund (dog)? If you can’t borrow one from a neighbor or friend, try signing up to offer your services here.
And here’s a few basic commands to get you and your Hund started!
Once you’re warmed up with the imperative, keep building on your conversational skills with a few casual slang words.
Go on, mach das!