128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing



The imperative form of English verbs has a wide range of special uses in formal writing


Imperative verbs, the simplest of all verb forms in English, may seem an elementary topic in a blog about the more advanced uses of English grammar. There is indeed no need to highlight much about their form, since it is rarely written incorrectly or misunderstood. However, grammar is not just about the construction of forms; it also involves knowing when and when not to use them (see 100. What is a Grammar Error?).

The problem with the use of imperative verbs is that the full range of possibilities is not always appreciated. Many people, if asked, will associate the imperative form more with commanding than anything else, when in fact this is not necessarily its main use at all. Part of the reason for such a reaction may be the misleading nature of the name “imperative”, which, being derived from a word in the Latin language meaning “command”, is strongly suggestive of that idea.

Here is an example of an imperative verb usage that is not for commanding. It is taken from the Guinlist post 33. Complex Example-Giving:

(a) Air pollutants cause many problems. Consider sulphur dioxide.

The main purpose of the underlined imperative here is to signal the start of a multi-sentence example. This post is about the variety of such non-commanding uses that imperative verbs can have in English. First, though, it is as well to be reminded of the various physical features of imperative verbs.

Most often an imperative verb is just the verb by itself without any endings or auxiliaries – the so-called “base” or “stem” form, e.g. see, describe, take. It is not to be confused with verbs in the infinitive form without to (see 148. Infinitive Verbs without “to”). Other words are sometimes added, such as do not (to show negativity), do (for emphasis – see 125. Stress & Emphasis), let us/me (to shift the focus from “you” doing something to “me”) and let us (or me) not. The subject of an imperative verb is not usually mentioned, but is mostly understood to be “you” (see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words).



The main formal writing uses of imperative verbs seem to be instructing, cautioning, commenting, referring, illustrating, hypothesising and signposting.

1. Instructing

Instructions say how to achieve something desirable. They are not commands because they do not compel – their addressees are assumed to be seeking them.

Academia has numerous well-known uses for instructions. Scientific and technological subjects employ them to specify laboratory procedures, Mathematics spells out steps in calculations with them, and all subjects use them in rubrics for exercises and tests (see 94. Essay Instruction Words). Professional writing too has various uses. Consumers often need instructions for understanding the use of a newly-purchased product. Teachers may base lesson plans on them. Cooks construct recipes with them.

Verbs are central in instructions. They are not always imperative; they can be in the ordinary form instead (either with you or, more formally, in the passive voice – see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”), but the imperative form is common, especially outside academia. It is not inappropriate in any way (see 166. Appropriacy in Professional English), so does not need to be made more polite-sounding with extra words. A particular misjudgement in this respect that I encountered recently was in instructions for a new satnav, where please accompanied every imperative.

Another verb form that instructions sometimes use instead of the imperative is one containing a “modal” verb like should (suggesting advice) or emphatic must. However, these forms are mainly found when other verbs in the same instructions are in the imperative form – it would sound strange to use modal verbs exclusively. Consider this real-life exam question:

(b) Discuss the ethics of the two approaches described above, coming to a reasoned conclusion about which one you would use. You must also discuss the reasoning behind your final choice.

The underlined use of must is acceptable as an instruction because it follows an imperative form discuss at the start. Switching to must might just be for variety (see 24. Good and Bad Repetition), but it could also be emphasising the particular importance of the associated instruction (see 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs).

Note the use of coming in (b). It too is an instructional verb. The -ing ending is just an alternative to and, enabling the COME instruction to be in the same sentence as discuss (see 30. When to Write a Full Stop and 101. Add-On Participles).


2. Cautioning

This use is often associated with instructions. It is mainly detectable from the kind of imperative verb that it uses. Its aim is the prevention of disasters. Consider this:

(c) Fill the tube with the liquid. Make sure that no bubbles are present.

Here, ensuring the absence of bubbles is not a step after filling the tube, but must take place during it. If it does not take place, the entire procedure will fail.

The verb make sure is common in this use, but not unique. Alternatives are ensure, be sure, be careful, take care, mind and see. Negative warnings – highlighting behaviours to avoid – usually comprise a simple imperative after either do not or strong alternatives like never or under no circumstances. Less formally, one can say make sure (etc) you do not  . If an unwanted circumstance lacks a verb (e.g. the presence of bubbles) a suitable imperative is beware of or (less formally) watch out for.

Should and must can also be used for cautioning. The second sentence in (c) could be rephrased No bubbles should/must be present.


3. Characterising a Statement

To characterise a statement is to associate it with a particular characteristic. It is commonly done by putting the statement into indirect form (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech). Some imperative verbs can put a statement into indirect form in order to characterise it, like this:

(d) Note that an instruction verb can end in -ing.

This imperative characterises the accompanying statement as important (it corresponds to the Latin-derived abbreviation NB, one of the items in the Guinlist post 130. Formal Abbreviations). It could also keep the statement in direct form, without that, by being used between two commas after the subject (An instruction verb, note, can …).

If the next word is that, as above, the importance is of something invisible. To characterise something visible or familiar as important, the next word is more likely to be how, an attention-directing word. Keep in mind, bear in mind and remember also indicate importance, but the last of these can alternatively characterise a statement as a reminder of something previously said.

Notice and observe characterise visible information as not immediately obvious. There seems to be a free choice between that and howSee has a similar effect, but must have how, not that.


4. Referring

Professional documents often call attention to separate information sources simply by naming them, whether through citations (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs) or other types of data reference (see 104. Naming Data Sources with “As).

Imperative verbs allow a separate information source to be named in a very direct way by actually inviting the reader to view it. A favourite verb with this use in this blog is see, as at the end of the previous paragraph. Other possibilities are compare, go to, refer to and the Latin abbreviations cf. and qv (see 130. Formal Abbreviations). Please is a possibility before imperative verbs employed in this way.


5. Illustrating

The imperative verb consider in example (a) above has this use. It must usually be accompanied by a simple noun or equivalent in the “object” position, representing the actual example being given, and be followed by one or more other sentences saying more about that example (see 33. Complex Example-Giving). If there is an -ing verb (gerund) instead of an object, the meaning will often be not illustrating but advising (Consider visiting your doctor …).

Other imperative verbs that can introduce exemplification are take, suppose and imagine. Take usually needs a following noun or noun phrase like consider, whereas suppose and imagine generally need a following statement linked to them by that.


6. Hypothesising

An imperative verb can replace if and an ordinary verb in sentences like this:

(e) Break the speed limit and a fine will have to be paid.

The imperative break corresponds to If you break. Not every use of if can be paraphrased like this: the verb after it must be in the present simple tense with you as the subject. For more details, see 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1.


7. Signposting

Signposting clarifies the organization of a text by saying how particular points are related to others. Imperatives with let can achieve this by giving warning of what is about to follow, especially in spoken communication, like this:

(f) Let us examine the importance of engineers.

The underlined words mean “I will now examine …”. In spoken English, me might replace us. Other verbs usable like this include ANALYSE, CHARACTERISE, CLARIFY, COMPARE, CONSIDER, CONTRAST, DEDUCE, DIFFERENTIATE, ELUCIDATE, ENUMERATE, EXPOSE, IDENTIFY, ILLUSTRATE, INVESTIGATE, LIST, LOOK AT (informal), SPECIFY and RETURN TO.

Imperatives with let are not the only way of introducing a topic. Others are considered within this blog in the posts  57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing,  122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists and 147. Types of Future Meaning


The above uses of imperative verbs seem the most important in formal writing. However, it should be noted that there are plenty of others in the wider English language – for example, welcoming (come in!), advising (see your doctor about this) and advertising (Get the best prices here). Something more about the latter two is in the post 165. Appropriacy in Professional English.


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