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Understanding French Imperative

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Jun 17, 2020
what is the imperative french

The French Imperative mood is not that common unless you are constantly ordering people around ! Conjugation, examples + how to avoid the Imperative in French

The French Imperative mood is used to give an order, make a strong suggestion, give advice to someone.

The Imperative mood is also sometimes used for politeness. 

1. Understanding the Imperative in French

To understand the French imperative mood, let’s start by comparing it to the English imperative mood.

If you don’t understand the grammatical term “mood”, please refer to my article about French moods.

A . The Imperative Form In English

There are only two “grammatical persons” you may use the imperative with in English: “you” (either one person or several), and “we”. 

Orders Given in the Imperative to ‘You’ . 

In English, you use the infinitive of the verb minus the “to”.
In the negative form, you’d add “don’t”.

1. Go to your room!
Don’t go to your room. 

2. Be quiet!
Don’t be quiet.

Orders and Suggestions Given in the Imperative to ‘We’ 

In English, you use the infinitive of the verb introduced by “let’s” in the affirmative, and “let’s not” in the negative form.

1. Let’s go.
Let’s not go. 

2. Let’s leave.
Let’s not leave. 

B. the Imperative Form in French

Just like in English, we have affirmative and negative commands.

However, since we have two “you” forms in French (“tu” and “vous”), we will have three persons in the Imperative mood in French: “tu”, “vous” and “nous”. 

2. French Imperative Mood – Conjugation And Examples

Now let’s see how to conjugate the French verbs in the imperative mood.

1 – Imperative Conjugation

Good news! The verb conjugations in the Imperative present in French are super simple: you simply use the “tu”, “nous” and “vous” of the Indicative Present (this is why my French audiobook learning method insists so much on the Indicative present tense…) and just like in English, you leave the subject pronouns out. 

1. Éteignez la lumière !
2. Dis merci à la dame !
3. Dites-moi ce que vous voulez.
4. Allons-y ! 

In the Imperative Negative, it’s the same thing: you’ll use “ne” (or n’) + verb + “pas” (or jamais, personne, rien…) 

1. Ne parlez à personne !
2. N’oublions rien !
3. Ne prends pas ce chemin ! 

There is no Imperative Interrogative in French. 

2 – Beware of the “Tu” Form of the French ER Verbs in the Imperative

For French verbs ending in -ER, you will remove in writing the final S of the “tu” form (so the Imperative present endings will be “e”, “ons”, “ez”). 

1. Regarde (without the S) cette jolie voiture !
2. N’écoute (without the S) pas cette chanson !
3. Mange (without the S) tes légumes!
4. Ne me parle (without the S) pas sur ce ton ! 

3 – Imperative Conjugation of Most French Verbs

For the other verbs (-IR, -RE and most “traditionally” irregular verbs in French), the S remains for the “tu” form, except for “aller” which becomes “va”: 

1. Finis tes devoirs !
2. Ne traduis pas mot à mot !
3. Prends un bonbon.
3. BUT Va lui demander ! 

If you are going to take exams in French, make sure you remember this. Not writing down the S in the Imperative present is one of the favorite traps of French tests

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3. Only a Few French Verbs are Irregular in the Imperative 

Good news again: very few verbs are irregular in the present Imperative in French.

Only the verbs “être”, “avoir”, “savoir” and “vouloir” are irregular: they use the French Present Subjunctive stem and not the Present Indicative to form the Present Imperative…

Still no S for “aie” and “sache”, but “sois” keeps its S… 

I’ll list “aller” here as an irregular verb, just because of the “va” form.

Être 
Sois
Soyons
Soyez 
Avoir 
Aie
Ayons
Ayez 
Savoir 
Sache
Sachons
Sachez 
Vouloir 
Veuille / veux
Veuillons / voulons
Veuillez / voulez 
Aller 
Va
Allons
Allez 

Would you like to check out ALL the French verb conjugations? There is a huge free site for that https://leconjugueur.lefigaro.fr/uklistedeverbe.php

4. “Vouloir” in the Imperative… Or Subjonctive!

The case of “vouloir” in the imperative is more complicated, and French language forums go on and on about it.

In politeness, we’d use the subjunctive form of vouloir where really, we should be using the Imperative… Why? I have no idea but this is very common.

1. Veuillez vous asseoir.
2. Veuillez agréer, chère Madame, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées – a very formal way to end a letter in French but still common.

But in other cases, so outside of politeness, we’d use the “normal” imperative form… It was hard coming up with an example because really, we don’t use vouloir in the imperative – apart from politeness – much!

Ne m’en veux pas. (Don’t be mad at me). 

5 – The Imperative is Not That Used in French!

If you ask me, I’d say unless you are yelling instructions all day long, the imperative mood is not all that used in French. One situation where the French Imperative is quite used is with dog training commands.

For some fun French practice, here is a video series I made in the virtual world of the videogame Minecraft. In episode 9, I train my virtual dogs so you’ll hear me use a lot of imperatives!

To best experience this video, I suggest you watch it full screen. You may also turn on/off the subtitles in French and English. Enjoy!

A. Avoid Using the Imperative in French

The Imperative mood in French sounds really harsh. Most of the time, we’re going to request something more softly, more politely, using an expression such as “est-ce que tu veux bien…”, or even “s’il te plait, tu peux….”

You may also be able to use the Subjunctive expression “il faut que…” or even simpler, use the verb devoir in the conditional: “tu devrais…” (you should) to give advice.

B. You Can’t Always Translate Literally

Saying “let’s” in English is common to make suggestions. However, in French the Imperative sounds really strong…

In English, I’d have no problem saying:
What are we going to do tonight… I know, let’s go to the movies!

But I wouldn’t say in French:
Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ce soir… Je sais : allons au cinéma !

It’s not impossible, but it’s just not something I would say!
I would say: “et si on allait au cinéma ce soir ?”

So it’s quite easy to get around using the Imperative in French! Once again, if you are studying to pass a test, you’ll need to know it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t spend too much time studying the Imperative in French . . .

To illustrate this point, in the exercises for the Imperative chapters of my advanced audiobook French learning method, I will use alternative ways to request or suggest something. Therefore, the exercises’ sentences will provide you with additional examples of how to avoid using the Imperative in French!

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6. Imperative and Exclamation Mark

An exclamation mark is often used with the Imperative mood, but not always compulsory. It’s common to use an exclamation mark to reinforce a direct order: listen!

However, an exclamation mark is not used with requests, invitations, advice:
1. Give me your number.
2. Have another drink.
3. Don’t mention it.

Remember the difference in typing between French and English for exclamation marks:
1. In English, no space before the exclamation mark: Come here!
2. In French, space before the exclamation mark: Viens ici !

So far, you may be thinking: “yeahhhh! the Imperative mood in French is not too difficult !”

7 – French Imperative And Pronouns

Well, I’m sorry to say things are about to change… 

The difficulty with the French Imperative are the pronouns (French object pronouns, reflexive pronouns, “y” and “en” – pronouns are explained in my intermediate French learning audiobook method).

So let’s dig in, shall we? 

8 – French Imperative With One Pronoun 

Let’s start by studying what happens when the French imperative mood is used with one pronoun.

A . Imperative Affirmative With One Pronoun 

In the French Imperative affirmative form, the pronoun goes after the verb and the pronouns “me” and “te” (m’, t’) become “moi” and “toi”. 

Note the use of an hyphen (un trait d’union) to link the verb and the pronoun.

There is a strong liaison in Z with “y” and “en” – more about that below. 

1. Faites-le
2. Prends-en
3. Allons-y
4. Écoutez-moi
5. Asseyez-vous
6. Demande-lui
7. Dépêche-toi 

B. French Imperative With Pronouns “Y” and “En” – Pronunciation

With “y” and “en”, there is a need for a Z sound in the Imperative Affirmative. 

So, either the verb already ends with an S or a Z (which is the case for the “nous”, “vous” and most of the “tu” forms)……… or you’re just going to add an S! 

Hence, the -ER verbs as well as the “tu” form of “aller” are going to have their S back… 

1. Prenez-en
2. Restons-y
3. Vas-y
4. Commandes-en 

Crazy, right? But wait, there is much more “crazy” coming… this lesson is not over yet!

C . French Imperative Negative With One Pronoun

In the French imperative negative, everything changes again: the pronoun is placed before the verb (after the “ne” or “n'”) and the “me” and “te” don’t change (they don’t become “moi” or “toi” like they do in the imperative affirmative), and we’re back to removing the S of the Tu form for verbs ending in -ER, and “aller”.

1. Ne le faites pas !
2. N’en prends pas !
3. N’y allons pas !
4. Ne m’écoute pas !
5. Ne vous asseyez pas !
6. Ne lui demandez pas !
7. Ne te dépêche pas !

If you are new to the concept of French imperative and pronouns, I strongly suggest you stop here and train with a French learning method with audio. On top of everything written here, the glided pronunciation of the French pronoun opens another huge can of worm for students who want to actually understand spoken French!

The imperative mood is explained thoroughly in my advanced French audiobook learning method, with many exercises with audio, and then illustrated within my ongoing novel recorded at several levels of enunciation (so featuring traditional, clearly enunciated French and modern spoken French)

9 – French Imperative With Several Pronouns

It’s quite common to use several complement pronouns in the Imperative mood.

Donne-le-moi !
Ne le lui donne pas !

This is tough because you cannot rely on translation: the order of pronouns is not the same between English and French. So you have to learn the right French order by heart.

And to make matters worse, the order of the pronouns is not the same in the Imperative affirmative and the Imperative negative !

Good thing about complement pronouns though: you don’t have to use them! You can use one, or two, or none and just repeat the nouns!

For example, if you take the sentence: “Sophie donne le livre à Mary”, you could say:

1. Donne le livre à Mary (no pronouns)
2. Donne-le à Mary ! (“le” replaces “le livre”)
3. Donne-lui le livre ! (“lui” replaces “Mary”)
4. Donne-le-lui ! (replacing both “le livre” and “Mary”)

So, once again, in real life, it’s quite easy to get around this complicated grammar point.

Now, let’s study the theory…

A. Order of Object Pronouns in the Imperative Affirmative

The order of the object pronouns in the Imperative Affirmative is:

le / la / les
+ moi
+ nous / vous / lui / leur + m’ / t’
+ y / en

There will be two hyphens linking the pronouns to the verbs, unless you have an apostrophe. “Moi” becomes “m'” and “toi” becomes “t'” when followed by “y” and “en”.

1. Va-t’en !
2. Rendez-le-lui !
3. Vendons-les-leur !
4. Achète-m’en.

STOP !

As I am giving these examples, I am cringing… Honestly, I wouldn’t say half of these sentences. Some are useful: “donnez-m’en”, “rends-le-moi”… But anything with “leur” just sounds… Awful!

As I explained many times in my French audiobook learning method, the French themselves try to simplify their sentences when they can.

So, yes, in theory, all these sentences are possible. But it’s extremely unlikely I would ever say something like: “Empruntons-les-leur”… It’s even difficult for me to pronounce!

As I mentioned in my other article on how to understand the French Imperative, the sentences I used in the examples of my French audiobook learning method are either good examples of how to find a way around using an Imperative, or sentences I could actually use.
The answers of the “conjugate the verb in the imperative” style of exercises however are… well, they are a grammatical game really!

So if you enjoy playing, or if you need to pass a French exam, by all means, do and redo exercises with Imperative and pronouns.

But if you’re learning French only to communicate in French, I think your time would be better spent studying other aspects of French grammar….

Now back to the order of pronouns with the Imperative, negative this time.

C . Order of Object Pronouns in the Imperative Negative

To complicate things even more, the order of pronouns is going to change in the Imperative Negative.

me /nous / vous
+ le / la / les /
+ m’ / t’ / lui / leur
+ en / y

We also don’t use hyphens in the Imperative Negative.

1. Ne t’en va pas !
2. Ne le lui rends pas !
3. Ne les leur vendez pas !
4. Ne m’en achète pas.

10 – The French Often Make Mistakes With The Imperative

This is so complicated that it will be no surprise to find out that it’s quite common for the French to make mistakes when using two pronouns in the Imperative mood.

The most common mistake you will hear is the tendency to add a Z sound with Y and En, like we do when using only one pronoun.

So, it’s very common (but wrong nonetheless) to hear:

1. “Donnes-z’en-moi” or “Donne-moi-z’en” instead of “Donne-m’en”
2. “Attendez-y-moi” or “Attendez-moi-z’y” instead of “Attendez-m’y”.

You’ll also hear:
1. “Donne-nous-le” instead of “donne-le-nous” (same mistake with “la and les”)…
2. “Rends-moi-le” instead of “rends-le-moi”

I could change the pronouns and conjugations: “donne-lui-z’en, attends-y-le, donne-moi-le” etc… The French can get quite creative when it comes to pronouns!!

If this is new to you, I strongly suggest you read my article about modern spoken French. This article will show you – with many examples – how the traditional French you are likely to have learned in school contrast from the reality of the French language spoken today, and give you many tips to simplify the way you speak French.

When you’re speaking French and the verb ends in a [é] sound, you shouldn’t even think about the way it’s spelled. It’s only in writing that it matters!

As I’ve explained several times in my French learning method, French kids learn grammar mostly thanks to the constant correction of their parents, then of their teachers, then by reading.

Very few French people actually know the rules explicitly. They just implicitly “hear” what is right (or wrong, if they only heard the wrong grammatical construction growing up).

And when we feel that what we are trying to say is too complicated, and we’re not sure, then we try to quickly find a way around it and avoid the problematic construction.

11 – What About Choosing Simplicity?

It’s quite easy to avoid the Imperative in French – as we’ve seen above.

It’s even easier to avoid using the Imperative with two pronouns… So, there are really two options here:

A. You are learning French to pass French exams.

In which case you have to nail down the Imperative with two pronouns. Just like the Subjunctive, it’s a favorite ‘trap’ of advanced French tests.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have a magic trick for you… If the test is in writing, you could memorize by heart a sentence featuring each possible construction. Then, replace the verb. Do a lot of exercises to get it to sink in. Repetition is the key!

B. You are learning French to communicate.

In this case you only need to drill on commands you may actually use or hear. And for the rest, be polite and use “est-ce que tu veux bien” or “tu pourrais…”!

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like:

  1. What are French moods?
  2. The French subjunctive mood
  3. The French conditional mood
  4. Should have, could have, would have… the French past conditional

Good luck with your French studies! See you soon on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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