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Review of  A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis of the English Imperative

Reviewer: William W. Kruger
Book Title: A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis of the English Imperative
Book Author: Hidemitsu Takahashi
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 23.4288

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AUTHOR: Hidemitsu Takahashi
TITLE: A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis of the English Imperative
SUBTITLE: With special reference to Japanese imperatives
SERIES TITLE: Human Cognitive Processing Vol. 35
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

William W. Kruger, Lincoln, NE, USA

Chapter 1 introduces the book’s overall structure: the goals and scope of the
volume, along with a discussion of the theoretical framework used -- Cognitive
Linguistics and Construction Grammar -- and a summary of the data-sources used
(literary sources and electronic corpora). The bulk of the chapter is dedicated
to explaining several key concepts. These include a schema-prototype model for
the English imperative (designed to account for a wide range of imperative
constructions, both direct and indirect), along with an outline of the concepts
of “Force Exertion” and “Second Person Subject,” which function to determine the
prototypicality of specific examples via sets of pre-determined parameters (pp.
12-18). The chapter concludes with a discussion of “compatibility between
constructions”, an element of Construction Grammar which is later used to
account for so-called “and-conditional” and “or-conditional” imperatives (pp.

Chapter 2 centers on a frequency-based description of imperatives used in
conversation, derived from a corpus of four modern works of American fiction:
Sidney Sheldon’s “The Sky is Falling”, John Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief”,
Daniel Steel’s “Malice”, and Barry Reed’s “The Deception”. The goal of this
quantitative study is to determine the verbs that are used most frequently in
English imperatives. The results are as follows: “let’s” (pp. 25-33), “tell”
(pp. 33-36), “let” (pp. 36-40), and “look” (pp. 40-42) show the highest
frequencies, followed by verbs such as “come/go” (pp. 43-47) and “give/take”
(pp. 47-49). It is further observed that certain of these verbs frequently
appear with a first person object in imperative constructions. Additionally, a
class of verbs (e.g. “worry”, “bother”) and adjectives (e.g. “silly”,
“ridiculous”) appear to systematically occur in overt negative constructions.
The common feature amongst these verbs/adjectives is that they convey an
adversative or undesirable outcome (pp. 49-51). Finally, various verbs and verb
phrases frequently are reanalyzed as discourse-organizational markers and
interjections (“let’s say/see, look, listen, come on,” etc.). These observations
are part of the overall descriptive nature of the chapter, which presents a
detailed and complex set of statistical figures for each verb or group of verbs.
The task of accounting for the results is left until Chapter 4.

Chapter 3 returns to the key concepts discussed in the first chapter, evaluating
previous research on the subject and describing said concepts in greater detail.
Previous approaches to the characterization of English imperatives include the
“anti-force” accounts of Davies (1986) and Wilson & Sperber (1988), the
“illocutionary-force” accounts of Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, & Svartik (1985) and
Huddleston & Pullum (2002), and the two Cognitive Grammar accounts of Thornburg
& Panther (1997) and Pérez Hernandez & Ruiz de Mendoza (2002). The author
ultimately concludes that the first two are inadequate, while approaches based
on Cognitive Grammar provide some insight (pp. 67-70). The account proposed
therefore integrates elements of these models into a new approach, beginning
with the schema-prototype framework.

The Schema of the English imperative is characterized as a system of two
subevents (Event 1 and Event 2), wherein the speaker applies a certain degree of
force toward the addressee. Event 1 naturally precedes and causes Event 2, where
the addressee conceptually performs the indicated action (pp. 73-74). Such a
schema is intended to be capable of capturing all forms of imperatives,
including those that do not easily fit within a “directive” category. In
contrast, the Prototype represents a more-or-less “ideal” version of the
conceptual category introduced by the Schema. The prototype of the English
imperative consists of a situation where the speaker (a Causer-Agent within
Event 1) exerts a high degree of force toward the addressee (a Causee-Agent
within Event 2) (p. 76). The author proposes that such a prototype be defined by
two criteria: Force Exertion and Second Person Subject. The former is the
primary criteria, while the latter is subsidiary.

Force Exertion is calculated via a framework consisting of six parameters
(desire, capability, power, cost, benefit, obligation), each of which is
assigned a numerical score depending on the context of the utterance. For
example, the parameter of “desire” can be assigned the following scores: High
(+2), Low (+1), Zero, (0), Minus High (-1), or Minus Low (-2). The addition of
the scores for each parameter yields an overall score for an imperative
utterance that characterizes the degree of force exerted toward the addressee,
and this score is used to compare degrees of force across utterances (pp.
76-82). The Second Person Subject criterion consists of two parameters (identity
and semantic role), the values of which indicate prototypicality or
non-prototypicality. For example, the imperative “Give me a call tomorrow” is
defined as prototypical because the addressee is “individuated” (identity) and
plays an explicitly causee-agentive role (semantic role). Imperatives such as
“Everyone come forward” or “Shake before using”, on the other hand, are
non-prototypical because the subject is non-individuated and does not play an
explicitly agentive role (pp. 87-88).

Chapter 4 recalls the results of the quantitative study performed in Chapter 2:
the high frequencies of specific verbs with first person objects in imperative
constructions, a class of adversative verbs and adjectives co-occurring with
overt negation, and cases where verbs/verb phrases are reanalyzed as
discourse-organizational markers or interjections. After reviewing these facts,
the author proposes a reevaluation of the categories used to define imperatives
based upon the parameters used in the Force Exertion model from Chapter 3. The
high frequency of first person objects in imperatives, as well as the
discourse-organizational/interjection function of certain verbs/verb phrases, is
explained with recourse to parameters involving desire and benefit (mutual or
for the speaker) (pp. 94-99). This constitutes a departure from previous
analyses, which frequently make use of concepts of politeness, for example, in
defining imperative interpretations. A similar proposal is made to account for
the co-occurrence of certain verbs and adjectives with overt negation. The fact
that these elements in imperatives commonly convey an undesirable or
non-beneficial outcome is used as support for the Desire-Benefit interpretation
of imperative meaning, as phrases such as “Don’t bother”, “Don’t worry”, and
“Never mind” are intended to express some benefit or element of desirability for
the interactants involved (pp. 98-101). From here, the chapter turns to a
further explication of the Force Exertion parameters as a means of capturing the
choice between “direct” and “indirect” imperatives. Ultimately, elements such as
urgency, politeness, or the addressee’s benefit are set aside, and the
parameters of Cost and Obligation are argued to constitute the primary factors
determining whether or not a plain imperative or an indirect directive will be
used (p. 115).

Entering into a discussion of so-called “mixed imperative constructions”
(imperatives involving passive, perfective, and progressive verbs), Chapter 5
explicates an important element of the Construction and Cognitive Grammar
approach proposed here: the concept of “compatibility between constructions.”
Building upon the conception of constructions as basic grammatical units with
varying degrees of intricacy and abstractness that may be combined with
different amounts of success (compatibility), imperatives are characterized as a
combination of constructions at the clause level: imperative, transitive, and
active. From the fact that imperative sentences using these constructions are
well-formed, it is inferred that these constructions are compatible with each

Mixed-imperative constructions, in contrast, deviate from these patterns of
compatibility. Passives may conflict with the compatibility of the “active”
construction, while perfectives and progressives may conflict with the
imperative construction on conceptual grounds having to do with the temporal
realization of imperatives versus perfectives/progressives. Ultimately, the
constraints on “mixed imperative constructions” are boiled down to issues of
prototypicality. In the case of passives, the conflict is conceptual, rather
than syntactic, and it only occurs between prototypes. The passive-imperative
construction thus becomes more acceptable when one of the elements (passive or
imperative) departs from the prototypical format. Perfectives and progressives
clash conceptually as well, since they function to locate, respectively,
completed and unbounded/continuing events (i.e. before or during the time of
utterance). Perfective/progressive imperative constructions thus become more
acceptable when the reference time is shifted from its standard interpretation
(i.e. from the prototype) to some future time (by the insertion of temporal
adverbials, for example).

Chapter 6 discusses the phenomenon of non-directive, “conditional” imperatives:
coordinate constructions consisting of an imperative and a declarative conjoined
either by “and” (e.g. “Bring alcohol to school and you’ll be suspended”) or “or”
(e.g. “Be careful or you’ll lose your bag”) (p.138). Previous approaches to the
problem of categorizing these non-directive usages are addressed using a
combination of primary data (an independent survey of 10 native English
speakers) and secondary data (acceptability judgments gathered from previous
research), to paint a picture of the levels of acceptability exhibited amongst
these coordinate constructions. And-conditional imperatives are determined to be
generally incompatible in embedded contexts, in distinct contrast to similar
“if-conditionals”. The incompatibility is tied to the overall
“hearer-directedness” of the imperative construction (p. 151). Ultimately, an
approach incorporating elements of Construction and Cognitive Grammar is chosen.
And-conditional imperatives are analyzed as instances of “left-subordinating
and” (Culicover and Jackendoff 1997) occurring with a prototypical or
non-prototypical imperative form that, crucially, cannot express maximally
strong force (p. 158). Or-conditional imperatives, conversely, are analyzed as
instances of “asymmetric or” (Lakoff 1971) combined with a subclass of
prototypical imperatives which must, crucially, exert maximally strong force (p.
163). Throughout the analysis, “compatibility between constructions” resurfaces
as a means of characterizing the observable incompatibilities amongst these
structures (pp. 157-158, 159, 163). The Force Exertion model is also applied to
the observable differences in the allowable degree of force, yielding the result
that imperatives in and-conditionals cannot appear with a maximum force, while
(in what is characterized as a form of “complementary distribution”, p. 167),
imperatives subordinated with asymmetric-or are unrestricted in this respect.

Chapter 7 turns to imperatives appearing in subordinate, “concessive” clauses;
that is, clauses introduced with adverbial conjuncts such as “(al)though, except
(that)” or “even though”. Some initial observations are made in reaction to
Lakoff (1984), centering around the distribution and possible interpretation of
imperatives when they are embedded in these types of clauses. Clauses introduced
by “(al)though” and “except (that)” allow directive interpretations, while those
embedded with “even though” do not. In addition, imperatives in reason clauses
(introduced by “because/for”) require a rhetorical assertive interpretation.
These observations are established by recourse to a range of previous research,
as well as data gathered from the British National Corpus. To account for these
facts, the concept of “compatibility between constructions” is again brought to
bear, examining the integration of imperative and subordinate clause
constructions. The compatibility of directive-force imperatives embedded with
“(al)though” and “except (that)” is explained as a result of a lower degree of
integration between the imperative and the main clause (pp. 186-188), while the
incompatibility of such clauses with “even though” is ascribed to a conceptual
conflict between the non-rectifying concession of “even though” and the standard
rectifying concession of imperatives (pp. 191-194).

Chapter 8 expands the theoretical approach of the previous chapters to an
examination of Japanese imperatives. The chapter begins with an overview of the
principles of Japanese imperative verb forms, specifically three forms for
commands (siro, sinisai, sitemiro) and two forms for requests (sitekure,
sitekudasai). The goal of the chapter is to determine the extent to which a
Force Exertion model can be applied to imperatives in Japanese and also to gauge
the applicability of the “compatibility between constructions” approach to the
specific case of passive imperatives in Japanese. The author compares
translations of Japanese and English imperatives, and ultimately concludes that
imperatives in Japanese express the full possible range of variation within the
FE scale (pp. 201-08). In the case of passive imperatives, constructions with
the command form sitemiro (“try”) are found to be much more broadly acceptable
than other forms, and this is attributed to an inherent aspect of sitemiro that
allows it to deviate drastically from the prototypical imperative pattern (pp.

Chapter 9 concludes with a recapitulation of the content of the previous
chapters, enumerating the various proposals and conclusions made, followed by a
discussion of the implications of the unified approach presented for
imperatives, in the interest of further expansion and research. The chapter
closes with a statement concerning the need for further cross-linguistic
research into the application of the Force Exertion/Second Person Subject
framework in order to further determine its overall validity.

In this work, a fully-described framework for classifying imperatives is
presented, well within the bounds of Cognitive Linguistics and Construction
Grammar. The author’s detailed statistical analysis of data certainly lends to
the book’s overall value. The presentation and theoretical discussion of said
data is, however, very dense and technical at points (Chapters 2, 4, and 7 in
particular), and readers must therefore be familiar with a range of advanced
theoretical concepts. In contrast, the proposal of the Force Exertion framework
in Chapter 3 is very clearly and concisely described, and the outline provided
in Chapter 1 is immensely valuable as a reference for keeping track of the
progress of the book. Overall, the framework of Force Exertion/Second Person
Subject and the concept of “compatibility between constructions” are both
consistently applied to the range of phenomena examined.

Any further criticism must therefore come from a theoretical direction, e.g.
involving the cross-linguistic value of the system proposed. It cannot be denied
that a scalar system such as that proposed in the FE model is certainly
descriptively adequate. However, in a book that presents an otherwise extensive
description of imperative structures, there seems to be a lack of discussion
concerning the formal, internal nature of imperatives. That is, what (if
anything) actually distinguishes an imperative construction from any other
comparable construction? Such a question may, however, prove unimportant within
a Construction Grammar framework, which envisions constructions as arbitrary
elements in a given language. If constructions, as units of grammar, are assumed
to be arbitrary, the formal difference between an imperative construction and,
say, a declarative construction is trivial, and the appearance of either of
these constructions in any particular language is also (ultimately) arbitrary.
The focus, in this work, on the interpretation and statistical patterns
exhibited by imperatives in English is therefore consistent with the assumptions
of Cognitive Linguistics. By that measure, the framework of analysis proposed
here is certainly a valid computational means of describing the force of
individual imperative utterances and provides a more fully realized account of
a, historically, very slippery issue: the classification of the possible
realizations and interpretations of imperative structures.

A proofreading evaluation yields nothing beyond a few minor errors, as follows:
“coexitst”, p. 19, the second sentence of the second full paragraph; “To taken”,
p. 27, the second sentence after the list of examples in (3); “As a matter of
act”, p. 31, the second sentence after the list of examples in (9) on the
previous page; “operation” for “operations”, p.134, the last sentence of the
last paragraph; “imperative’ ” for “imperative’s”, p. 145, the first sentence of
the second paragraph in section 6.3.

The framework proposed in this work is a valuable addition to the field of
Cognitive Linguistics. It provides insight into the elements by which imperative
utterances can be classified, along with tools for comparing these utterances
cross-linguistically. Ultimately, such a framework can serve as an important
basis for further research in the area of imperative constructions.

Culicover, P. W. & R. Jackendoff. 1997. Semantic subordination despite syntactic
coordination. Linguistic Inquiry 28(2). 195-217.

Davies, E. 1986. The English Imperative. London: Croom Helm.

Huddleston, R. & G. K. Pullum (eds.). 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English
language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, G. 1984. Performative subordinate clause. Berkeley Linguistics Society
10. 472-480.

Lakoff, R. T. 1971. If’s, and’s and but’s about conjunction. In C. J. Fillmore
and D. T. Langendoen, eds., Studies in Linguistic Semantics: 115-149. New York:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Pérez Hernandez, L. & , F. J. Ruiz de Mendoza. 2002. Grounding, semantic
motivation, and conceptual interaction in indirect directive speech acts.
Journal of Pragmatics 34. 259-284.

Quirk, R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, & J. Svartik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar
of the English language. London: Longman.

Thornburg, L. & K-U. Panther. 1997. Speech Act Metonymies. In W.-A. Lierbert, G.
Redeker, and L Waugh, eds., Discourse and perspective in Cognitive Linguistics:
205-219. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Wilson, D. & D. Sperber. 1992. On verbal irony. Lingua 87. 53-76.

William Kruger is a freelance linguist and editor. He received his M.A. in Linguistics from Arizona State University. His research interests include historical Germanic linguistics, theoretical syntax and phonology.