The Imperative Mood

by Francis A Lattanzio

The imperative mood can be organized in a number of different ways. Every source I encountered first divides the imperative mood into "Commands" and "Negative Imperatives" (also known as prohibiton). Beyond this, however, each grammar treated the imperative somewhat differently. Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar nexts separates commands and negative imperatives into the Present and the Future - that is, A&G choose tense as their primary criteria for organization. George Lane, in his A Latin Grammar, divides commands into 2nd and 3rd Person Imperatives. Clearly, these two schools of thought present fundamentally different divisions (by tense vs. by person). Finally, Gildersleeve and Lodge present a third, hybrid view that incorporates elements of both tense and person. 

Here's my own organization of the imperative. I happen to prefer Allen and Greenough's method (you'll see why).

  1. Commands 
    1. Present Imperative (2nd Person Imperative; First Imperative)
      1. Orders
      2. Requests, Wishes, Prayers, etc.
    2. Future Imperative (3rd Person Imperative; Second Imperative)
      1. Reference to Future Time
      2. General Rules
  2. Negative Imperatives (Prohibition) 
    1. Present Negative Imperative (2nd Person Negative Imperative; First Negative Imperative)
    2. Future Negative Imperative (3rd Person Negative Imperative; Second Negative Imperative)

Commands, along with negative imperatives, form one of the two sub-sets of the imperative mood. Commands come in two flavors, but both behave similarly on a grammatical level: A command is the main verb of its sentence and makes it an imperative sentence (one of the four base types of sentences). Commands can then be sub-divided into these two categories...
  1. Present/2nd Person/First Imperatives
  2. Future/3rd Person/Second Imperatives
Present, 2nd Person, or First Imperatives
Before examining the details and schools of thought on such imperatives, let's first go over the basics, which transcend the lines of the different schools. First, these come under the umbrella of commands, and thus are the main verbs of their sentences. Second, the uses of these imperatives fall into these two categories. Note that there is no difference in the syntax of the verb or sentence, only in the meaning:
  1. Direct orders, to anyone - inferiors, equals, and superiors.
  2. Desires, wishes, prayers, etc.
Now, onto the interesting stuff... Here are the three schools of thought on such imperatives. Note that they are not different ways of interpreting the meaning of such imperatives; rather, they provide different criteria for sub-dividing the category of commands. 
  1. Allen and Greenough call this a Present Imperative, as the command looks for completion in the present. Note that A&G do not restrict the person of the Present Imperative.

  3. George Lane refers to these as 2nd Person Imperatives, because the recipient of the command is always the 2nd person.

  5. Gildersleeve and Lodge call this the First Imperative. As stated above, the G&L method is something of a hybrid. They define First Imperative as "looking forward to immediate fulfillment" thereby incorporating elements of Allen and Greenough's Present Imperative; also, the First Imperative takes only the second person, just as Lane's method prescribes.
We'll look at specific examples in order to further examine how these three ideas "work" (or don't):
Take this for example:
dic, Marce Tulli, sententiam.
"Speak your opinion, Marcus Tullius."
This is your garden-variety imperative, and (as you would expect) any of these methods work equally well. Obviously, this command looks to immediate fulfillment, and the recipient is in the 2nd person (as evidence of the vocatives).

However, now consider this example from Allen and Greenough (pg. 283):

ollis salus populi suprema lex esto.
"Let safety of the people be the first law."
Now, let's see how the three schools fare... This example does fit the criteria of Allen and Greenough's Present Imperatives, as the command seeks completion in the present. Next, do Lane's and G&L's methods, however, work as well? Clearly, this is not a second person command, so it would seem that their methods fall short here. However, if you jump ahead to the future imperative, you'll see that one of the uses of the future imperative is in "general directions for all time." I don't think you'd have much trouble arguing that this statement could be interpreted as such. In light of this, (i.e. we consider this a future imperative by virtue of its meaning), the above example doesn't break the rules set out by Lane and G&L, as it then doesn't fall into this category.

Future or 3rd Person Imperative
Once again, before going over the schools of thought, here are the basic uses of the future imperative. Remember that future imperatives are a sub-set of the larger category of commands (just look at the goofy borders). Thus, their grammatical behavior is the same as any command. Future imperatives have two main uses; as before with the uses of present commands, the syntax is identical, and only the meaning is different:
  1. The command is meant to be fulfilled sometime in the future.
  2. The command serves as a law, general rule, recipe, maxim, etc.
As you might expect, each grammar divides these imperatives along different lines. Again remember that these schools of thought do not produce different meanings: 
  1. Allen and Greenough state that the Future Imperative is used in commands when "there is a distinct reference to future time." (284) This reference can come either in direct reference (a word such as "cras," for example), or as "general directions serving for all time."

  3. George Lane treats this as the Third Person Imperative. The third person imperative is used "in laws, legal documents, and treaties, and also in impressive general rules and maxims."(266) Note that, in this method, the second person of the future imperative doesn't exist.

  5. Gildersleeve and Lodge call this the Second Imperative. The second imperative can be either second or third person and looks for contingent (i.e. future) fulfillment. Second Imperatives "[are] used chiefly in laws, legal documents, etc." Once again, the G&L method falls somewhere in between Lane's idea and that of A&G: Gildersleeve and Lodge set out restrictions on both time and person.
Again, we will examine each method through example:
regio imperio duo sunto.
"There shall be two [men] with the king's power." (example from Lane, 266)
Again, for the common example, all three ways work fine. The sentence shows elements of both "the future" and "the third person." 

That being said, consider the following example from Plautus's Mercator:

cras petito, dabitur.
"Ask tomorrow, it shall be given." (from Allen and Greenough, 284)
Allen and Greenough's method of looking at this makes perfect sense - there's a direct reference to future time ("cras"). Gildersleeve and Lodge's method also works, as the fulfillment of the command is contingent in that it must be done "tomorrow." Lane's method, however, doesn't really make sense. I think you would find it hard to argue that this statement is a "general rule"; moreover, this sentence is clearly directed at the 2nd person, not the 3rd person as Lane suggests. 

So, you probably want to know, which one is the best? From the above discussions, I think we can agree that the methods laid out be A&G and G&L are superior to Lane's: The main problem with Lane's conception of commands is his treatment of 3rd person commands. Though future commands are rare in the second person, they do exist, despite what Lane says - just look in any elementary Latin text book, and you'll find directions on how to form the second person future imperative. This narrows the field down to Allen and Greenough vs. Gildersleeve and Lodge. Both grammars do an excellent job of dividing commands, and neither has any obvious holes, as Lane's setup does. Gildersleeve and Lodge provide more specific criteria than Allen and Greenough, as they lay out guidelines for both tense and person (which work without exception), while A&G divide commands by tense only. In this respect, the G&L method is best, as it gives more working rules with which to classify, understand, and translate a given imperative. In the end, however, I prefer Allen and Greenough, but only because they choose more appropriate names for the categories. The names "Present" and "Future" really give you a sense of how and why the categories are divided. Gildersleeve and Lodge's corresponding "First" and "Second," however, are pretty much arbitrary and even a little misleading. (I know this is really splitting hairs, so this is perhaps my general preference for A&G showing through.)

Negative Imperative (Prohibition)
The negative imperative is a sub-set of the imperative mood, not a special form of command. (Look at the tree on the top of the page for a visual representation of this idea.) As such, negative imperatives are parallel to commands on several levels. First, from a grammatical standpoint, they act identically to commands. That is, they are the main verb of the sentence and make it an imperative sentence. Second, they have parallel uses as commands. For example, present negative imperatives are used both for direct orders and for desires, prayers, etc. Finally, negative imperatives have corresponding sub-divisions to commands, namely...
  1. Present/2nd Person/First negative imperatives
  2. Future/3rd Person/Second negative imperatives
Present/2nd Person/First Negative Imperative
As mentioned above, negative imperatives mirror commands in many ways. The three grammars (Lane, A&G, G&L) divide these imperatives along the same lines as they do commands. (Just look at the definitions above for these and insert "negative" where necessary.) The only difference (aside from the obvious) between negative imperatives and their affirmative cousins is that negatives can be formed in three ways:
  1. Noli + infinitive

  2. Noli currere!
    "Don't run!"
  3. Cave/Cave ne + Present Subjunctive

  4. Cave curras!
    "Don't you run!"
  5. Ne + Perfect Subjunctive

  6. Ne curreris!
    "Don't run!"
Though I've translated these identically, each has it's own nuance of meaning. The first is the most "ceremonious" and formal, while the third is least so. (These are the three most popular ways of expressing the negative imperative in prose. In poetry, however, you'll find a myriad of ways of creating negative imperatives. Discussing all of these ways, which vary according to poet, time period, etc. is really beyond the scope of this page, but I just thought I'd warn you...)

Future/3rd Person/Second Negative Imperatives
In case you haven't caught on by now, the theme the negative imperatives is the parallelism to commands. The uses of future negative imperatives correspond exactly to those of the future imperatives, as do the schools of thought from the three grammars. Simply refer to the above discussions and replace "imperative" with "negative imperative."



Allen, Joseph Henry and J.B. Greenough. New Latin Grammar. New Rochelle, New York: Aristide D. Caratzas Publisher, 1998.

Gildersleeve, B.L. and G. Lodge. Latin Grammar. London: Macmillan Education Ltd, 1876.

Lane, George. A Latin Grammar. New York: AMS Press, 1970.

Moreland, Floyd L. and Rita M. Fleischer. Latin: An Intensive Course. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

Written and designed by Francis A Lattanzio for Prof. Struck's Latin 309 class, 1999. R2.0
Written with "NOTEPAD - THE RIGHT WAY"
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