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Review of  Interpreting Imperatives

Reviewer: Mary Johnson
Book Title: Interpreting Imperatives
Book Author: Magdalena Kaufmann
Publisher: Springer
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 24.699

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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 modality.
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 show').


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 imperatives).

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 example.

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 Press.

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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