The imperative form of English verbs has a wide range of special uses in formal writing
THE NEED TO CONSIDER IMPERATIVE VERBS
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).
USES OF IMPERATIVE VERBS IN FORMAL WRITING
The main formal writing uses of imperative verbs seem to be instructing, cautioning, commenting, referring, illustrating, hypothesising and signposting.
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 (usually in the passive voice in order to avoid you – see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”), but the imperative form is common, especially outside academia. In writing, instructional imperatives do not need to be made more polite-sounding with extra words. This is only a possible need in speech (which allows softening by the addition of you or you have to). A particular inappropriacy that I encountered recently in written instructions for a new satnav was the use of please before 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).
This use is really a subcategory of instructions. Its aim is the prevention of disasters that could result from particular steps in a procedure. 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.
Characterising is a common purpose of indirect speech (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech). Imperative verbs can work with an indirect statement in order to characterise it, like this:
(d) Note that an instruction verb can end in -ing.
This imperative characterises the information after it as important (it corresponds to the Latin-derived abbreviation NB, which can be read about in the post 130. Formal Abbrevations). Keep/Bear in mind and remember can do the same, but the latter can alternatively characterise the statement as a repetition of something previously said, i.e. a reminder. Notice and observe suggest that the information is not immediately obvious. See is similar, but needs a following how instead of that. All of these verbs can also be placed later in their sentence, with surrounding commas instead of that.
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. Referring to Data 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.
The imperative verb consider in example (a) above has this use. It must usually be accompanied by a simple noun or noun phrase 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 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.
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. Some Exotic Grammar Structures.
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 is as well to keep in mind that there are plenty of others in the wider English language – welcoming for example (come in!) and advertising (Get the best prices here).