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LINGUIST List 24.699

Thu Feb 07 2013

Review: Philosophy of Language; Pragmatics; Semantics: Kaufmann (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 07-Feb-2013
From: Mary Johnson <johnson.3415osu.edu>
Subject: Interpreting Imperatives
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/22/22-4497.html

AUTHOR: Magdalena Kaufmann
TITLE: Interpreting Imperatives
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy
YEAR: 2011

REVIEWER: Mary Johnson, Ohio State University


This book provides an analysis of imperatives that aims to unify the study of
their linguistic form with that of their various potential uses. Kaufmann
explores their syntactic properties, as well as the various speech acts
associated with them and how they come about pragmatically, in order to
ultimately offer a semantic analysis in which they are analyzed with relation
to modalized propositions and according to presuppositional meaning associated
with them.

In Chapter 1, the author begins by discussing the various ways that
imperatives are understood according to different disciplines. Problems that
have arisen in the study of imperatives versus declaratives or interrogatives
are discussed, including their semantic function, and the presence or absence
of truth conditions. Furthermore, there is a discord across disciplines about
whether imperatives are to be taken as a matter of form, function, or both.
Kaufmann takes the view that they are to be understood as clause types (Bach &
Harnish 1979; Sadock & Zwicky 1985), taking into account both linguistic form
and function. An imperative, then, is an imperative by form that also carries
out the speech act of ordering. Kaufmann relies on the prototypical speech
acts associated with sentence level forms in this definition. She presents
multiple problems that arise when trying to study imperatives, including the
problem of clause type encoding (i.e. how they are encoded) as well as the
problem of assigning speech act types to utterances.

In Chapter 2, the author presents the ways in which imperatives have been
treated in previous literature, including where their properties are stored,
what type of meaning they express, and what they denote. The author herself
rejects the common notion that they do not have truth values, instead stating
that they do in fact have them; however, they are not conversationally
accessible. Kaufmann believes that imperatives and modalized declaratives
(particularly ‘you should’ performatives) denote the same propositional
object. She goes on to discuss ways in which imperatives are similar to
declaratives, such as their ability to answer questions, their insincere use,
and their ability to be used in rhetorical questions (which the author
demonstrates with German).

Chapter 3 elaborates on Kaufmann's idea that imperatives express modalized
propositions. She explores their syntactic properties and describes two
classes, class I and class II. Class I imperatives are morphologically meager,
while class II imperatives allow for much more inflection, including person,
number, tense, and aspect. While some languages have imperatives for other
subjects, the canonical imperative subject is second person; however, it may
be covert. The author states that imperatives are addressee oriented, and
quantify over a set or subset containing the addressee(s). Furthermore, the
author presents German data showing that imperatives express impersonal

Chapter 4 discusses how various speech acts come about in imperatives. Since
imperatives (usually) refer to the future, the common ground includes the set
of futures that the conversational participants know to be possible. The
appropriate speech act performed by the imperative is determined by the
ordering of future worlds, as well as other information that conversational
participants have, which make up the modal base. The author presents
presuppositions that are present when one uses an imperative; namely, that the
speaker has authority, that imperatives do not describe the actual way the
world is, and that imperatives are used to influence outcomes. This helps
describe why ordering is the prototypical speech act of an imperative. The
other speech acts that imperatives can express come about according to
different contextual settings.

Chapter 5 discusses non-prototypical speech acts that come about with
imperatives, specifically, those that can have a possibility reading like
permissions and concessions. The author does not take these phenomena to be
separate from the previously discussed necessity imperatives, but rather shows
that the possibility reading comes out pragmatically. The author explores
possible counter-examples with 'any' in English and 'zum Beispiel' ('for
example') in German, but shows that these examples do not in fact contradict
an analysis of imperatives as parallel to necessity modals, which she equates
to exhaustified possibility. The German 'zum Beispiel,' then, blocks
exhaustification and brings about the possibility reading.

Chapter 6 addresses the use of imperatives in embedded clauses. There is a
cross-linguistic tendency to not allow imperatives to embed; nevertheless,
Kaufmann shows that there are some languages that do allow their embedding, to
varying degrees. The author also shows that they are used in various
conditional constructions in many languages. In conditional conjunctions and
disjunctions, the imperative may be used as simply a conditional- setting the
condition for the truth of the second conjunct (e.g. 'Come closer and I'll
shoot you')- or it may be the speech act of ordering or requesting, where the
second conjunct constitutes the result of addressee compliance or defiance
(e.g. 'Mow the lawn and I'll give you $20'; 'Be on time or you'll miss the


Kaufmann undertakes the grueling task of finding a unifying analysis for
different uses of imperatives. The amount of work required to realize this is
remarkable. The organization of the book is particularly helpful to those who
are interested not in reading the book in its entirety, but rather in specific
sections. Those who read the entire book will appreciate that chapters relate
to one another in a unifying way, all concentrating on the same goal of
demonstrating that imperatives, while separate from declaratives, are related
to modals (and why this is relevant). Kaufmann's work could have been
fortified by more cross-linguistic examples (a la Aikhenvald 2010). She relies
a lot on English and German, with few examples from other languages (until the
last chapter, where several languages are considered for their embedded

A benefit of this book is that linguists of different areas may find it
useful. Because it includes in-depth syntactic analyses of imperatives, as
well as semantic and pragmatic ones, different chapters target different
audiences. Most linguists interested in imperatives would likely find the
whole book helpful, but syntacticians may get more out of Chapter 3, while
semanticists may find Chapter 4 to be more relevant to them. Still, given
Kaufmann's aim to unify these analyses, the sections connect in a coherent way
and most readers will probably find each section to be understandable. With
little syntax background, I was still able to make sense of Chapter 3, for

Some chapters could have afforded a more organized summary of what was to come
later in the chapter, for those looking for specific information or sections.
Also, for the sake of consistency, some chapters could have benefitted from a
conclusions section at the end. Half of the chapters have one, while half do
not. It should be mentioned that the denser chapters have conclusions, which
is appreciated, but the others (namely, Chapters 1, 2 and 4) could have used
one as well.

What I find still lacking in the work on imperatives is a better consideration
of negative imperatives. Kaufmann, like other authors who have worked on the
topic, includes only brief discussions of negative imperatives. She does note
that imperatives must not be separated from negative imperatives, as
demonstrated by the fact that they have the same range of non-prototypical
functions, including concessions and permissions. Furthermore, Section 4.1.2
(pages 133-135) briefly discusses the speech acts associated with
prohibitions, but apart from those brief mentions, negative imperatives are
mostly ignored. Still, I believe that Chapter 6, concentrating on embedded
imperatives, particularly could have benefitted from a discussion of negative
imperatives, which, as Kaufmann points out, are in some languages' subjunctive
forms. Presumably, this was left out given the fact that a subjunctive form
for a negative imperative would be subject to a different form-function
analysis. To be clear, this is not a shortcoming only of Kaufmann's work, but
one that I consider to hold for most work done on imperatives thus far. An
in-depth analysis of negative imperatives would have been unrealistic to
include in this work, as the book would then have been worth two. It is just
worth noting the considerations that negative imperatives could bring to our
overall understanding of the topic. What they can do should not be overlooked
in future work.


Aikhenvald, A. Y. 2010. Imperatives and Commands. Oxford: Oxford University

Bach K. & R. Harnish. 1979. Linguistic communication and speech acts.
Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sadock, J. & A. Zwicky. 1985. Speech act distinctions in syntax. Language
Typology and Syntactic Description, Volume 1, Timothy Shopen (ed). Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.


Mary Johnson is a PhD candidate at The Ohio State University. Her dissertation
focuses on the alternation between two negative commands in Argentinian
Spanish. Her research interests include pragmatics and sociolinguistics,
specifically imperatives and speech acts, and the pragmatics of negation.
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