As an English speaker, when you start learning French, one of the most obvious differences between the two languages is the way that French verbs have far more forms than their English equivalents. There are more tenses, and verbs also change according to who is doing the action.
One extremely important verb form you’ll need to know about right from the start is what’s known as the French imperative.
Fortunately, this is one of the easiest to master, and to help you get to grips with the basics, here’s my complete guide to this vital piece of French grammar.
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What’s An Imperative?
As always, let’s start from the beginning and take things from there – so first, what’s an imperative?
‘Imperative’ is the name we give to the form of the verb that’s used for giving commands – or in other words, for telling people to do something.
In English, the imperative form is the same as the regular “you” form of the verb, so most of the time, we don’t even realise we’re using it.
Here are some examples:
- Sit down! (the same as ‘you sit down’)
- Eat your dinner! (the same as ‘you eat your dinner’)
In French – as in some other languages – there is an imperative form for “we”, but in English, we don’t have one. Instead, when we want to express the imperative for “we”, we use the slightly unusual “let’s”, like this:
- Let’s cook Thai tonight
- Let’s go out dancing
How Do You Form The Imperative In French?
The good news is that forming the imperative in French is super-easy – and there are only a few simple rules to remember.
In French, there is an imperative for the tu form, the vous form and the nous form, and most of the time, they are the same as the corresponding present forms of the verb.
- Finis ton café ! (Finish your coffee!)
- Finissez votre café ! (Finish your coffee!)
- Finissons notre café ! (Let’s finish our coffee!)
The only complication is that if the tu form of the present ends with -es or -as, you drop the ‘s’ for the imperative, like this:
- Parle ! (Speak!)
- Donne ! (Give!)
However, in spoken French, this never affects the pronunciation, so you only need to remember it when you’re writing.
There’s also an exception to this rule – when you use the tu form of the imperative with the pronouns y or en, you need to add the ‘s’ back again, mostly for reasons of euphony, like this:
- Donnes-en ! (Give some!)
- Vas-y ! (Go ahead!)
I’ll come back to imperatives with pronouns in just a moment!
Negative French Imperatives
The negative forms of imperatives are just as easy. All you do is put the ne…pas around the verb in the usual way, like this:
- Ne parle pas ! (Don’t speak!)
- Ne finissez pas votre café ! (Don’t finish your coffee!)
- N’oublions pas ! (Let’s not forget!)
Are There Any Irregular Forms?
There’s more good news, too, because when it comes to the imperative, there are only four irregular verbs, être (to be), avoir (to have), savoir (to know) and vouloir (to want).
Here they are in full:
être (to be)
soyons (let’s be)
avoir (to have)
ayons (let’s have)
savoir (to know)
sachons (let’s know)
vouloir* (to want)
As you can probably imagine, these are not words we need to use that often in the imperative. Here are some examples of when you might need them:
- Soyons prudents (Let’s be careful)
- Sachez que je vous soutiens (Know that I support you/Be aware that I support you)
*Note that the imperative form of vouloir is used almost exclusively in formal requests for somebody to do something and can usually be translated by “please” in English – and there is no nous form.
Here’s an example:
- Veuillez remplir ce formulaire (Please fill in this form)
Using The Imperative With Object Pronouns
The most complicated part of using the imperative in French comes when we combine it with object pronouns – but don’t worry, because even this is not too hard to understand.
In a positive (technically ‘affirmative’) sentence, the object pronoun comes after the imperative and is joined to it by a hyphen.
Look at this example:
- Prends la tasse ! (Take the cup!)
- Prends-la ! (Take it!)
Since tasse is feminine, the object pronoun used to replace it is la, which comes after the imperative, prends, and is joined to it by a hyphen.
Here’s another example:
- Dites-nous ! (tell us!)
Here, the imperative form is the same as the vous form of dire, and the object pronoun nous is tacked onto the end with a hyphen.
With only two exceptions, all the direct and indirect object forms are the same as in ‘normal’ affirmative sentences.
The only ones that change are me and te – me becomes moi while te becomes toi, like this:
- Dis-moi ! (Tell me!)
- Sers-toi ! (Serve yourself!)
The rules also hold true for all French pronominal/reflexive verbs, like this:
- Tais-toi! (Shut up!) from se taire (to shut up)
- Asseyez-vous! (Sit down!) from s’asseoir (to sit down)
Using The Imperative With More Than One Object Pronoun
If you need to use more than one object pronoun in the sentence, all the pronouns follow the verb and are attached by hyphens.
The order of pronouns is the same as for affirmative sentences: direct object – indirect object – y/en. As before, me and te change to –moi and -toi – except if they are followed by a vowel, in which case they become m’ and t’.
Here are some examples:
- Donne-le-moi ! (Give it to me!)
- Dites-le-lui ! (Tell him it/Tell it to him!)
- Donne-m’en !* (Give me some!)
- Accroche-t’y !* (Hold on to it!)
*These constructions, while technically following the rules, sound a bit strange, and native speakers would usually find different ways to express these sentences. For example, a native speaker would normally just say Accroche-toi ! (Hold on!) – the “to it” would almost always be superfluous.
This is just a case of getting used to the language, and recognising these kinds of ‘oddities’ is something that will come with time.
Also note that Donne-m’en ! doesn’t require an ‘s’ because m’ comes between the imperative and en, so there’s no need for an ‘s’ to change the sound.
Negative Imperatives With Pronouns
If you want to make a negative sentence that includes pronouns, it’s actually much easier since the sentence is almost identical to a non-imperative sentence minus the subject pronoun.
You just need to remember to take away the ‘s’ if necessary when writing.
Look at these examples:
- Tu ne les lui donnes pas (You don’t give them to him)
- Ne les lui donne pas ! (Don’t give them to him!)
- Vous ne le leur dites pas (You don’t tell it to them)
- Ne le leur dites pas ! (Don’t tell it to them!)
Alternative Ways To Express The French Imperative
As I said at the beginning, the imperative is used for giving commands and orders – telling people to do things. And in French, just as in English, using this form can sometimes seem abrupt or rude.
There are times when the imperative is appropriate – a teacher telling his students to sit down, for example, or a sister telling her brother to shut up – but there are other times when you need something a little softer and more polite.
We’ve already touched on one – in formal situations, it’s common to use the imperative form of vouloir (to want), which in English can simply be translated as “please”:
- Veuillez signer ici (Please sign here)
Imagine you were in a bank and you heard the alternative:
- Signez ici ! (Sign here!)
In both English and French, you can clearly see how this would come across as sounding impolite or even aggressive.
Ask A Question
Another way to avoid using an imperative is to make a question in French with vouloir. We do exactly the same in English when we ask “do you want to…?” – like this:
- Veux-tu me passer le sel s’il te plaît? (Do you want to pass me the salt please?)
- Voulez-vous m’aider une seconde ? (Do you want to help me a second?)
Use Other Verb Tenses
You can also avoid using a direct imperative by employing the French future tense. In English, we use something like this, but it’s more common to formulate it as a question:
- Tu achèteras du lait (You will buy some milk/Will you buy some milk?)
- Vous fermerez la porte en partant s’il vous plaît – (Close the door when you leave please)
In informal spoken French, you can also simply use a regular affirmative sentence in the present tense, perhaps with a questioning intonation.
- Tu me dis s’il te plaît (?) (You (will) tell me please(?))
- Tu me donnes du pain s’il te plaît (?) (You (will) give me some bread please(?))
This is not an ‘official’ form and it’s not something you will find in any grammar books. This version is somewhere between a statement, a question and a request. But in informal French used among friends, it’s something you may often hear.
The Written French Imperative – The ‘Impersonal’ Imperative
When the imperative is written as a kind of impersonal directive – meaning the command is intended for anyone and everyone reading the sign – it is commonly expressed using the infinitive:
- Avancer (Advance/move forward)
- Ne pas ralentir (Don’t slow down)
Another way to say something is forbidden is to use défense de:
- Défense de fumer (No smoking)
This is another form you will commonly see used on signs.
A Simple Point Of Grammar That’s Easy To Master
With so much of French grammar being notoriously tricky, it’s probably quite refreshing to come across something that’s relatively simple.
Most of the time, the French imperative is no more difficult than using the same verb forms you already know from the present tense. And the only real sticking point might be when you try to make sentences with object pronouns.
However, even that is very logical and easy to understand, and as ever, with just a little practice, using them correctly will soon become second nature.