Imperative Mood in Context

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Examples from Student Research Papers

I really had not anticipated that there would be many examples of imperative mood in the sources used in a paper written by students in the spring of 2000.  Their task was to find authentic examples for a number of grammatical categories, including "command."

I'd thought that might be an area where they would have to say "I didn't find any examples." However, the work on the paper proved me wrong.  One of the real values of corpus work is finding out what really happens in language in use--rather than just guessing about how the resources of a language are used in communication.

Here are the imperatives that they provided in their papers. 

1. Seek first to understand..then to be understood. (from a self-help book)

2. For more information about these ancilliaries, please write or call St. Martin's Press....  (note to the teacher in a textbook)

3.  Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  (Genesis 20:8)

4.  Consider the case of a Tanosy man who lives on the edge of the Andohahela Reserve of southeastern Mdagascar.  (from an anthropology textbook)

5. Try to answer these questions as you read this chapter. (from an anthropology textbook)

6. Look to the future, not to the past.  (statement about U.S. values in a textbook on cross-cultural communication for ESL/EFL students)

7.Destroy the rebel army if possible.  (quotation from A. Lincoln to Gen. McClellan in U.S. history book)

8. Use all your senses.  (from a psychology textbook)

9. Create a play about growing up in an African country.  (an activity suggested in a middle school geography textbook)

10. Note the symbolism of the numbers.  (from an art history textbook)

11. For more information, visit our website. (from an issue of U.S.A. Today)

12. Briefly summarize the defense's view on "expert testimony."  (from a history teacher's website about the Scopes Trial)

13. Act calmly and avoid panic.  (from a textbook on physical geography)

What an interesting range of uses for this grammatical form.  I see at least these subdivisions:

A. Instructions to teachers for activities to use in teaching content--reminding us that parts of textbooks are aimed at the teacher rather than the students

B. Advice for use in activities away from the text--"avoiding panic, understanding before seeking to be understood"  And perhaps #3 goes here?

C. Offer of help--"write to get materials," "visit the website"

D. Advice on how to read the text materials--"note the symbolism...."

E. Statements of activities for the reader to do in response to the materials--"briefly summarze...."   These are perhaps really a subset of #A, activities stated as instructions to the student rather than instruction to the teacher

F. Quotation of a command--the Lincoln quotation from a history textbook

G. #12 seems a bit like a test item but could be an example of #D

H. Statement of a value in terms of a cultural imperative--"do this to be like an American"

Based on this small sample, how might we need to reconsider our work on teaching students about imperatives?  When they read these commands, what are they to make of them?  

Let me know your comments and questions. Thanks.