The German Imperative (der Imperativ)

Today, we will focus on the imperative mood in German, examining its formation and usage and highlighting some key differences with English to provide a clearer understanding of the German imperative.

Understanding the German Imperative

The imperative mood in German, known as “Befehlsform” (command form), is used to give commands, make requests or offer invitations. This mood is frequently used in everyday conversation, making it an essential aspect of the German language to master.

  1. Commands: This is the most common use of the imperative. It is used to give orders or instructions to others.
    • Öffne das Fenster!
    • Open the window!
  2. Requests: The imperative is also used to ask someone to do something in a more polite way. Often, “bitte” (please) is added to the sentence to make it more courteous.
    • Mach die Musik leiser, bitte.
    • Turn down the music, please.
  3. Invitations: The imperative can also be used to extend invitations to others.
    • Komm herein!
    • Come in!

❗ In German, using an exclamation mark with imperatives is very common, especially when giving orders or instructions. However, using an exclamation mark is not always necessary, especially in casual or informal situations. For example, when making a request or extending an invitation, it might not be necessary to use an exclamation mark, and it could even come off as too forceful or rude. In German, imperatives are not typically used to replace phrases like “Can you…” or “Could you…”. Instead, Germans would likely use a construction with “könntest du” or “könnten Sie” to make a polite request. For example:

🇩🇪 Könntest du das Fenster öffnen, bitte?
🇺🇸 Could you open the window, please?

❗ The tone of voice and context are very important when using the imperative form. A command can be perceived as harsh if not delivered properly. To soften the tone, it’s common to add ‘bitte’ (please) to the sentence, e.g., ‘Kauft bitte Milch’ means ‘Please buy milk.’

❗ In written German, including an exclamation mark at the end of an imperative sentence is essential. This punctuation is a rule and a way to indicate the sentence’s tone.

How Do You Form the Imperative in German?

First, let’s look at the formation of the imperative in German. There are three forms of the imperative that correspond to the three kinds of “you”: du (informal, singular), ihr (informal, plural), and Sie (formal, singular and plural).

Understanding a verb’s conjugation in the present tense (Präsens) is key to forming the imperative, especially for the ‘du’ and ‘ihr’ forms. Refer to Table 1.1 for example.

Siemachenmachen Sie!
Table 1.1

❶ The “du” form of the imperative is formed using the verb stem, which is the infinitive minus the “-en” or “-n” ending. For example, the verb “machen” (to do/make) becomes “mach” in the imperative. There are, however, some important irregularities in the “du” form to be aware of, such as verbs ending in “-eln”, verbs with a stem vowel change, and one-syllable verbs that take a vowel change and an “-e” ending in the du form.

Table 1.2 showcases examples of the “du” imperative form, including both regular and irregular verbs:

VerbConjugationImperative Explanation
machenmachstmach(e)!drop “-st”
handelnhandelsthandle!drop “-st”
arbeitenarbeitestarbeite!drop “-st”
lesenliestlies!drop “-st”
nehmennimmstnimm!drop “-st”
fahrenfährstfahr!Ignore Umlaut and drop “-st”
Table 1.2

❗ Although the “-e” ending is usually dropped in the ‘du’ form of the imperative, it is kept when the verb stem ends in “chn-, fn-, tm-” to make it pronounceable. For example, “öffnen” becomes “du öffnest” in the present tense, but the imperative form is “öffne!”, not ‘öffn’.

❗ If there is a vowel change in the present tense of a strong verb, this change will also occur in the “du” form of the imperative and the “-e” ending will not be added.

❗ Additionally, it’s important to remember: If a vowel change in the present tense involves adding an umlaut (a, o, u ➡️ ä, ö, ü), this umlaut is not added to the “du” form of the imperative, as seen in the example of “fahren”.

❷ The “ihr” form of the imperative is the same as the regular “ihr” form of the verb, including the “-t” ending.

Table 1.3 showcases examples of the “ihr” imperative form, which is identical to the regular “ihr” form of the verb in the present tense:

machenmachtmacht!Same as present tense “ihr” form
handelnhandelthandelt!Same as present tense “ihr” form
arbeitenarbeitetarbeitet!Same as present tense “ihr” form
lesenlestlest!Same as present tense “ihr” form
nehmennehmtnehmt!Same as present tense “ihr” form
fahrenfahrtfahrt!Same as present tense “ihr” form
Table 1.3

❸ The “Sie” form of the imperative is the same as the regular “Sie” form of the verb, but the subject pronoun “Sie” is placed at the end of the sentence. Additionally, there is a “wir” form of the imperative, which is formed using the infinitive of the verb + “wir” at the end of the sentence.

Table 1.4 showcases examples of the “Sie” imperative form, which is formed by adding “Sie” at the end of the infinitive form of the verb:

machenmachenmachen Sie!Add ‘Sie’ after the infinitive
handelnhandelnhandeln Sie!Add ‘Sie’ after the infinitive
arbeitenarbeitenarbeiten Sie!Add ‘Sie’ after the infinitive
lesenlesenlesen Sie!Add ‘Sie’ after the infinitive
nehmennehmennehmen Sie!Add ‘Sie’ after the infinitive
fahrenfahrenfahren Sie!Add ‘Sie’ after the infinitive
Table 1.4

❗ Typically, only in the “Sie” form is the pronoun included, while for “du” and “ihr”, the pronoun is usually omitted, and only the verb is used.

Using Reflexive Verbs in the Imperative

Reflexive verbs reflect the action onto the subject, i.e., the subject and the object are the same person. In German, reflexive verbs use reflexive pronouns, like “mich” (myself), “dich” (yourself), etc.

When using reflexive verbs in the imperative:

  1. The reflexive pronoun is placed immediately after the verb.
  2. For the “du” form, use the accusative reflexive pronoun “dich.”
  3. For the “ihr” form, use the accusative reflexive pronoun “euch.”
  4. For the “Sie” form, use the accusative reflexive pronoun “sich.”
FormSich setzen (to sit down)Imperative Form
dudich setzenSetz dich!
ihreuch setzenSetzt euch!
Siesich setzenSetzen Sie sich!
Table 1.5

The reflexive pronoun “sich” is used in its unchanged form only with the formal “Sie” form of the imperative. For the “du” and “ihr” forms, it changes to “dich” and “euch,” respectively.

Using Separable Verbs in the Imperative

Separable verbs (trennbare Verben) are common in German. They are composed of a prefix and a base verb. The prefix is typically moved to the end of the sentence or phrase when using separable verbs in the imperative form.

  1. For the “du” form, the verb stem is used, followed by the prefix at the end.
  2. For the “ihr” form, use the ihr conjugation of the verb followed by the prefix at the end.
  3. For the “Sie” form, the base verb is used first, followed by the prefix at the end, and then the word “Sie.”
FormAnfangen (to begin)Imperative Form
dufang anFang an!
ihrfangt anFangt an!
Siefangen Sie anFangen Sie an!
Table 1.6

❗ In the “du” form of the imperative, the “-e” at the end of the verb stem is usually dropped, except for verbs ending in “-d,” “-t,” “-ig,” or “-m,” and those with only one syllable.

Differences in Imperative Use: German vs. English

The use of the imperative mood varies significantly between German and English due to structural and cultural differences between the two languages:

  1. Pronoun Usage: In English, the subject pronoun is usually omitted in the imperative. For example, “Open the window”. However, in German, the imperative is formed for “du”, “ihr”, and “Sie”, and typically, the pronouns for “du” and “ihr” are dropped, but for “Sie”, the pronoun is added at the end of the sentence. For example, “Öffne das Fenster!” (Open the window!), “Öffnet das Fenster!” (Open the window!) and “Öffnen Sie das Fenster!” (Open the window!).
  2. Politeness: In German and English, adding “bitte” or “please” at the beginning or end of a command is common to make it more polite. However, in German, it is almost essential to add “bitte” to soften the command and make it sound more courteous, whereas in English, “please” is encouraged but not as strictly adhered to. For example, in German, it would be common to say “Mach die Tür zu, bitte” (Close the door, please), while in English, one might say “Close the door” without it necessarily being perceived as rude.
  3. Tone and Punctuation: In German, it is common to use an exclamation mark (!) with imperatives, especially when giving orders or instructions. In English, this is not as common, and the tone is usually determined by the voice inflection.

These differences reflect the cultural and linguistic variations between English-speaking and German-speaking regions. While English-speaking areas tend to use a more direct and concise imperative, German-speaking regions typically express commands more politely and formally.

The German imperative is about giving orders, making requests, or extending invitations. But remember, it’s not just what you say but how you say it! Adding “bitte”, using the right tone, and understanding the quirks of the language, like reflexive and separable verbs, will help you navigate daily conversations in German more smoothly. Practice, practice, practice!

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button

😞 AdBlock Detected 😞

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker