How to form and use the imperative in French
Published on February 9, 2023 / Updated on January 3, 2024
Among all the French tenses, the imperative mood is quite likely the quickest to learn in French as there are only a few rules and forms to remember for every verb. It’s commonly used in everyday life, for instance, to give directions in the street, to provide the steps to use a new device or to explain how to prepare a delicious French dish. In some cases, it can even be used to give a piece of advice or to make a request. If you give an order, you may want to soften it up by adding s’il vous plaît (please). Our article tells you everything you need to know to use the imperative in French.
There are a few reasons the French imperative is so easy to learn. To start, the imperative mood contains only two tenses: the present tense and the past tense. However, the latter is rarely used. Both tenses won’t require learning new verb forms since they take after the present tense and the passé composé of the indicative mood, respectively.
Finally, they are limited to three grammatical persons, namely tu (informal you in the singular form), nous (we) and vous (formal you in the singular form or you in the plural form). When using the tu and vous forms, you’re likely instructing another person to do something.
Fais attention à la marche.
>> Be careful of the step.
Asseyez-vous s’il vous plaît.
>> Sit down, please.
With the nous form, you include yourself in the action to be carried out. This can usually be translated with the phrase let’s:
Attendons cinq minutes
>> Let’s wait five minutes.
Let’s start with the (more common) present tense.
Most verbs in the imperative present tense are modeled after the present tense of the indicative mood. In the case of tu, you’ll simply need to remember to use the verb form for je (I). In the case of -er verbs, this means not having the final -s of the present tu form:
|-er verbs (first group)
|-ir verbs (second group)
|-re verbs (third group)
The only exception is the verb aller (to go): for the tu person of the imperative, instead of using vais, the verb form for je in the present tense of the indicative, it uses va, the verb form for il/elle/on (he/she/one):
Va chercher les clés.
>> Go fetch the keys.
The other forms of aller are regular:
Allons au cinéma ce soir.
>> Let’s go to the movies tonight.
Allez vite à l’école.
>> Go quickly to school.
Aside from aller (to go), there are only a few irregular verbs, mainly: être (to be), avoir (to have) and savoir (to know). Instead of the present tense of the indicative mood, they take after the present tense of the subjunctive mood:
|être (to be)
|avoir (to have)
|savoir (to know)
Similarly to regular verbs, the tu form of the imperative present tense is based on the je form of the subjunctive present tense. Once again, this means removing the final -s for avoir and savoir.
Another verb with an irregular form is vouloir (to want): For the vous person, it also takes its inspiration from the corresponding form in the subjunctive present tense: veuillez. It’s used both in speaking and in writing to make a polite request, which may be translated by please. Here are a few examples of the imperative with vouloir in French:
|Veuillez vous asseoir.
|Please sit down.
|Veuillez recevoir, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées.
|Please receive, sir, my distinguished salutations.
The last example is a phrase you can use at the end of formal letters in French. The literal translation provided in the table gives an idea of how elaborate such phrases can be. But a more appropriate translation would simply be “Yours truly”.
Nowadays, it’s very rare to use the past tense of the imperative mood. However, you might hear it to express an action that needs to be completed before another, as in these examples:
Sois rentré.e à la maison avant minuit.
>> Be back home before midnight.
Aies fini tes devoirs avant que je ne revienne.
>> Have your homework completed before I return.
As you may have already guessed from these examples, they use the same pattern as the passé composé, with the auxiliary verbs avoir and être in the present tense of the imperative.
If you’re invited to the home of a French family, you may hear parents telling their children not to do something. In such cases, they’ll probably use the negative form of the imperative tense. As in other tenses, you simply need to add the words ne and pas in between the verb in the imperative form:
Ne parle pas quand tu manges.
>> Don’t speak when you eat.
If you need to use the past tense of the imperative form in the negative, then the words ne and pas need to go between the auxiliary verb:
N’ayez pas commencé le projet avant que nous ne soyons là.
>> Don’t start the project before we’re here.
You now have all the tools to use the imperative in French, both in the present tense and in the (less common) past tense. You can use it in your daily life to give an order or make a request. Ideally, you’ll also add some polite words like s’il vous plaît. So get started, it’s imperative!