LINGUIST List 24.699

Thu Feb 07 2013

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

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 07-Feb-2013
From: Mary Johnson <>
Subject: Interpreting Imperatives
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Magdalena KaufmannTITLE: Interpreting ImperativesSERIES TITLE: Studies in Linguistics and PhilosophyPUBLISHER: SpringerYEAR: 2011

REVIEWER: Mary Johnson, Ohio State University


This book provides an analysis of imperatives that aims to unify the study oftheir linguistic form with that of their various potential uses. Kaufmannexplores their syntactic properties, as well as the various speech actsassociated with them and how they come about pragmatically, in order toultimately offer a semantic analysis in which they are analyzed with relationto modalized propositions and according to presuppositional meaning associatedwith them.

In Chapter 1, the author begins by discussing the various ways thatimperatives are understood according to different disciplines. Problems thathave arisen in the study of imperatives versus declaratives or interrogativesare discussed, including their semantic function, and the presence or absenceof truth conditions. Furthermore, there is a discord across disciplines aboutwhether 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 formand function. An imperative, then, is an imperative by form that also carriesout the speech act of ordering. Kaufmann relies on the prototypical speechacts associated with sentence level forms in this definition. She presentsmultiple problems that arise when trying to study imperatives, including theproblem of clause type encoding (i.e. how they are encoded) as well as theproblem of assigning speech act types to utterances.

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

Chapter 3 elaborates on Kaufmann's idea that imperatives express modalizedpropositions. She explores their syntactic properties and describes twoclasses, 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 othersubjects, the canonical imperative subject is second person; however, it maybe covert. The author states that imperatives are addressee oriented, andquantify over a set or subset containing the addressee(s). Furthermore, theauthor presents German data showing that imperatives express impersonalmodality.

Chapter 4 discusses how various speech acts come about in imperatives. Sinceimperatives (usually) refer to the future, the common ground includes the setof futures that the conversational participants know to be possible. Theappropriate speech act performed by the imperative is determined by theordering of future worlds, as well as other information that conversationalparticipants have, which make up the modal base. The author presentspresuppositions that are present when one uses an imperative; namely, that thespeaker has authority, that imperatives do not describe the actual way theworld is, and that imperatives are used to influence outcomes. This helpsdescribe why ordering is the prototypical speech act of an imperative. Theother speech acts that imperatives can express come about according todifferent contextual settings.

Chapter 5 discusses non-prototypical speech acts that come about withimperatives, specifically, those that can have a possibility reading likepermissions and concessions. The author does not take these phenomena to beseparate from the previously discussed necessity imperatives, but rather showsthat the possibility reading comes out pragmatically. The author explorespossible counter-examples with 'any' in English and 'zum Beispiel' ('forexample') in German, but shows that these examples do not in fact contradictan analysis of imperatives as parallel to necessity modals, which she equatesto exhaustified possibility. The German 'zum Beispiel,' then, blocksexhaustification and brings about the possibility reading.

Chapter 6 addresses the use of imperatives in embedded clauses. There is across-linguistic tendency to not allow imperatives to embed; nevertheless,Kaufmann shows that there are some languages that do allow their embedding, tovarying degrees. The author also shows that they are used in variousconditional constructions in many languages. In conditional conjunctions anddisjunctions, the imperative may be used as simply a conditional- setting thecondition for the truth of the second conjunct (e.g. 'Come closer and I'llshoot you')- or it may be the speech act of ordering or requesting, where thesecond 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 theshow').


Kaufmann undertakes the grueling task of finding a unifying analysis fordifferent uses of imperatives. The amount of work required to realize this isremarkable. The organization of the book is particularly helpful to those whoare interested not in reading the book in its entirety, but rather in specificsections. Those who read the entire book will appreciate that chapters relateto one another in a unifying way, all concentrating on the same goal ofdemonstrating that imperatives, while separate from declaratives, are relatedto modals (and why this is relevant). Kaufmann's work could have beenfortified by more cross-linguistic examples (a la Aikhenvald 2010). She reliesa lot on English and German, with few examples from other languages (until thelast chapter, where several languages are considered for their embeddedimperatives).

A benefit of this book is that linguists of different areas may find ituseful. Because it includes in-depth syntactic analyses of imperatives, aswell as semantic and pragmatic ones, different chapters target differentaudiences. Most linguists interested in imperatives would likely find thewhole book helpful, but syntacticians may get more out of Chapter 3, whilesemanticists may find Chapter 4 to be more relevant to them. Still, givenKaufmann's aim to unify these analyses, the sections connect in a coherent wayand most readers will probably find each section to be understandable. Withlittle syntax background, I was still able to make sense of Chapter 3, forexample.

Some chapters could have afforded a more organized summary of what was to comelater in the chapter, for those looking for specific information or sections.Also, for the sake of consistency, some chapters could have benefitted from aconclusions section at the end. Half of the chapters have one, while half donot. It should be mentioned that the denser chapters have conclusions, whichis appreciated, but the others (namely, Chapters 1, 2 and 4) could have usedone as well.

What I find still lacking in the work on imperatives is a better considerationof negative imperatives. Kaufmann, like other authors who have worked on thetopic, includes only brief discussions of negative imperatives. She does notethat imperatives must not be separated from negative imperatives, asdemonstrated by the fact that they have the same range of non-prototypicalfunctions, including concessions and permissions. Furthermore, Section 4.1.2(pages 133-135) briefly discusses the speech acts associated withprohibitions, but apart from those brief mentions, negative imperatives aremostly ignored. Still, I believe that Chapter 6, concentrating on embeddedimperatives, particularly could have benefitted from a discussion of negativeimperatives, which, as Kaufmann points out, are in some languages' subjunctiveforms. Presumably, this was left out given the fact that a subjunctive formfor a negative imperative would be subject to a different form-functionanalysis. To be clear, this is not a shortcoming only of Kaufmann's work, butone that I consider to hold for most work done on imperatives thus far. Anin-depth analysis of negative imperatives would have been unrealistic toinclude in this work, as the book would then have been worth two. It is justworth noting the considerations that negative imperatives could bring to ouroverall understanding of the topic. What they can do should not be overlookedin future work.


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

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

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


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

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