How to teach the imperative
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for imperatives for offers, emailing, telephoning, presentations, instructions, commands/ orders (and not requests!)
In some ways the imperative is the easiest tense in English. As it is made from just the base form of the verb, simply adding “Don’t…” for negative imperatives, even very young and low-level students can learn “Jump” and “Don’t kick”. However, that giving orders/ commands/ instructions meaning is far from the most common use in real communication. It seems that so few people look for the most common and useful uses of the imperative that Google doesn’t even automatically complete the relevant search terms, and I’d say that this is generally one of the most badly taught of all grammar points. Teachers also often provide a bad model for students by overusing the imperative in their own classroom instructions. Because of all this and often some L1 interference, correct use of the imperative can challenge even high-level learners.
What students need to know about the imperative
There is no reason why you shouldn’t continue to use the imperative for “Turn around” and “Don’t move” with young learners, especially as you couldn’t do action songs, play miming games like Simon Says or give simple instructions without it. That could also include some work on negative imperatives like “Don’t run”, perhaps to explain class rules.
However, what adults most need to know about the imperative is that it is rarely or never used for requests. “Please tell me…”, “Please refrain from…” and “Please do not hesitate to…” should therefore be saved until after they have studied “Can I have…?”, “Could you tell me…?”, “Could I possibly…?”, etc. For example, after teaching “Can I have a burger and fries, please?”, you could warn them that “Give me a burger and fries” is not polite even from a customer and may even sound threatening, as it is an order/ command, not a request. In fact, taking away the verb completely is often better, with “Same again, please” being a standard order in a bar, but “Give me the same again” being a thing that only rude customers say.
It’s difficult to explain the difference between requests and orders/ commands/ instructions, but if a border guard tells you “Please raise your arms” or “Please open this suitcase”, you can’t say “I’d rather not, if you don’t mind”. In contrast, in reply to a request like “Could I borrow your stapler?”, it’s at least theoretically possible to say “Sorry, it’s only got one staple left and I really need it for this document”. Although “Can you come to my office later?” could actually be a polite command in English if it comes from your boss or a headteacher, it doesn’t work the other way around, and “Give me my money” is definitely not a request.
Many students have real problems with the fact that the imperative is not a request in English, perhaps because the imperative is used that way in other languages they know. Many will insist that adding “Please…” is enough to make a polite request, but of course when a plane announcement says “Please fasten your seatbelts”, that is exactly the same as “Fasten your seatbelts” and is not optional. The main point that students need to learn about imperatives is therefore to stop offending their teachers, customers, and boss with “Please check my homework”, “Please send me your order” and “Give me two more days to finish”.
If your students are like mine, they will still not be 100% convinced that they have been accidentally commanding people all these years and come up with other examples like “Please let me through. My children are already in there” and “Please let me know if you need more information”. The first is similar to requests, but is what I would call begging. It can be explained by the fact that it sounds more natural as “Please please please let me through” or “Pleeeeease let me through”, showing that begging is more forceful and desperate than a request. Begging is also much rarer than requests and something that most students won’t need. “Please let me know if…”is the complete opposite, being an offer of help.
Offers like “Please take a seat” and “If you need more information, please do not hesitate to contact me” are actually the most common use of the imperative in real (adult) communication, and therefore the second most important thing for students to learn after not misusing this grammar when trying to make requests. If students need an explanation of why the imperative is okay for offers but not for requests, it could perhaps be because you are helping the other person when you make an offer and so don’t need to worry about politeness so much as if you were asking them to help you.
It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between orders and offers. For example, “Please take a seat” means “Please take a seat anywhere you like/ if you like” and so is a polite offer, whereas “Please sit down” is a command to the annoying teenagers in the cinema and so is rude in most situations. Generally, if the sentence includes or has the idea of “if”, the action is optional and therefore an offer and okay, as in “Please let me know if you need more help”. In the same way, many offers with the imperative include the language or idea of “and I’ll…”, as in “Please hold the line (and I’ll connect you)”.
There are many incredibly useful common phrases including the imperative for offers, some of which your students might not know and need, such as (in approximate order of usefulness):
- Please go ahead.
- Please help yourself (to…)
- Please find the documents attached.
- If you need any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.
- Please hold the line (and I’ll connect you).
- Please feel free to…
- Any other questions, just let me know.
- Please make yourself at home.
- Please take your time.
- Please find the documents enclosed.
- Dig in!
- Don’t wait for me.
- Don’t be shy!
- Please pop round anytime.
- Don’t stand on ceremony!
Finally, there are commands/ orders/ instructions with the imperative such as “Please insert your card” and “Please replace the handset and try again”, which most students will often hear but will much more rarely need to use. A closely related but perhaps more generally useful use is to give advice and warnings (“Whatever you do, don’t miss…” and “Don’t trust…”). There is also a very similar but even less vital use, which is cheering people on/ encouraging people (“Come on!”, “Hit him!”, “Cheer up!”, “Don’t worry, be happy”, etc).
There is one more situation in which “if” is linked to the imperative. In Zero Conditional, sentences with imperative like “If he comes home early, hide in the cupboard” and common and perhaps more useful that the Present Simple “textbook” version of Zero Conditional (“When it rains, I dry my clothes inside”, etc). You will therefore need to include the imperative if you are teaching Zero Conditional.
To summarise, the things that I would teach about the imperative are, in approximate order:
- Not requests
- Advice and warnings (only as part of that topic more generally, for example when it comes up in the textbook)
- Other instructions
- Zero conditional
- Cheering people on/ Encouraging people
Typical student problems with the imperative
As I’ve explained above, the most common problem with the imperative is using it for requests when “Can/ Could…?” would be more suitable. Perhaps the most common wrong use is in checking/ clarifying sentences like “Can you say that again more slowly?” (not “Please repeat”, as an automated system might say) and “Could you spell that for me?” In a similar way, students often say “Please wait” where “Just a moment” would be much more suitable.
As well as the confusion between “Please take a seat” and “Please sit down” above, typical pairs of offers and commands that students get mixed include “Please check the attached document” (command) and “Please find the document attached” (offer).
When it comes to actual commands/ orders/ instructions, perhaps the only common confusion is overusing “please”, especially in directions like “Please go straight on”, which sounds strange in English, perhaps because it is an instruction not a command/ order. You may also occasionally catch student adding the subject, but “Don’t you come in here!” is even more forceful and therefore ruder than “Don’t come in here”.
A problem related to orders and requests which often comes up in my business classes is that “Thank you for your cooperation” only ends an email with commands/ orders/ instructions like “Please make sure that you send all travel claims by the third”. Request emails like “Could you possibly have a look at my report and tell me what you think?” end with “Thank you in advance” or simply “I look forward to hearing from you”. To show students that they might be overusing the former, I tell them that I sometimes receive such emails from HR and Finance, but I’ve never used “Thank you for your cooperation” in my life. “Thanks” and “Cheers” are used for both requests and orders/ commands/ instructions, so are a safe choice in situations where they are not too informal.
As well as using “Thank you for your cooperation” for requests, some students can copy slack native speakers who end almost every email with “Thanks”, even when the email has neither instructions nor a request.
How to present the imperative
Many of my adult students’ problems with overusing the imperative started in school, so if possible I wouldn’t present giving orders/ commands/ instructions with young learners at all. Instead, I’d simply use the imperative when needed, and move onto requests as quickly as possible, for example with shopping language like “Can I have two cabbages, please?” Even before that, I try to use requests like “Can I have your homework, please?” instead of “Hand in your homework”, and get students to ask me “Can I have a sticker, please?” as soon as they have got the hang of “Sticker, please”.
Some textbooks teach the orders/ commands meaning of “Don’t draw in your textbook”, but even in this case there is usually is no need to have a grammar presentation, as the “not” in “Don’t…” and visuals like no smoking signs are enough to make the meaning very clear. The closest thing to a presentation that I might include is to give students sentences like “Don’t throw things”, “Line up at the door” and “Don’t listen to the CD” to identify as good rules or not, match to pictures, or match to particular places where those rules apply. Either as a presentation or practice task, students can also raise cards with “…” and “Don’t…” on them to show if they think things should be done or not. For more fun (though perhaps less careful listening), they can also run and touch the cards, throw things at the cards, etc.
General English books for adults rarely include the imperative for orders/ commands nowadays, and the topic is easily skipped anyway. Instead, I wait to see if my students are still saying “Please give me black coffee” after we practise “Can I have milk and two sugars, please?” and then present the imperative in contrast to requests. I most often do this by getting students to label sentences like “Please help yourself to sugar” and “Please do not use the stairs unless it is an emergency” as “offer” and “command/ order/ instructions”. To make the misuse in requests clearer, you can also include a few commands/ orders which should be requests like “Please say that again more slowly” and “Please phone back later”. After labelling the offers and commands/ orders, students find the ones which are better as requests and change them to “Can/ Could…?” This works particularly well with the topic of Travel English, as they will hear lots of commands like “Please fasten your seatbelt” but shouldn’t say “Give me another blanket” themselves.
I often make this guessing the function activity into a Simplest Responses Game by giving students “Offer(ing help)” and “Command/ Order/ Instructions” cards to hold up to show what they think the meaning of each sentence that they hear is. This more fun activity can be used both as a warmer for the presentation stage and as further practice after checking their labelled sentences.
Something similar can also be done with a text such as an email exchange in which students find the imperative and label the examples by function. It’s really difficult to find a situation in which the imperative for orders/ commands is used more than once (usually in the initial nagging group email to all employees), but that could help make the point that other uses are much more common and useful.
Use and misuse of the imperative often comes up during topics like emailing (“Please attach the document” being bad but “Please find the documents attached” being good) and telephoning (“Please tell me your name” bad but “Please phone again if you have any other questions” good). Therefore, a lesson on either or both of these vital skills can be a good way of introducing how to use the imperative correctly. The same can also be done for presentation Q&A sessions phrases like “Please rephrase your question” (bad) and “That’s a bit too complicated to go into now, but please (feel free to) come up and speak to me later” (good).
You can also wait until it comes up naturally when the topic of offers, advice or Zero Conditional comes up in the syllabus/ book, for example adding “Let me take your coat” and “Please take your time” when the book presents “Would you like…?”
If you do want to present and practise the commands/ orders/ instructions function of the imperative, for example with people who will give instructions on how to use technology, the easiest and most common use for most people is in directions like “Turn left” and “Go straight on”.
How to practise the imperative
The thing I most want to practise is avoiding the imperative for requests, so the main practice is roleplays involving request, and lots of error correction when they say “Please change the time of our meeting”. A more involved activity is a Politeness Competition in which students take turns trying to make rude phrases like “Wait!” and “This plate is dirty. Get me another one” more and more polite/ formal.
To practise offers with the imperative, I’d make packs of cards with a common offer like “Please take a seat” and “Please feel free to contact me” on each. Students try to use those phrases in communicative situations such as a roleplay email exchange. Another option is Imperative Answer Me. In this game, they try to get the phrases on the cards from their partner by standing around looking like their legs are getting tired (to elicit “Please take a seat”), saying “I might have some more questions later” (to get “If you have any more questions, please contact me”), etc.
For the giving instructions use of the imperative, the best activity is for one student to choose a topic like “How to fix something” and explain a process in as much detail as they can, with their partner listening and then adding details, disagreeing or just asking questions.
To continue the class rules topic, students can make up posters with the most important rules or make up a strange school with crazy rules. The same things also work for saving the environment, being a good neighbour, etc.
This topic is also a good use for Pick and Draw, with students putting cards together to make interesting combinations like “Don’t jump on the teacher” for that person or others to mime or draw.