The French command form, called impératif in French, is a common French mood that you should be familiar with. It is used to give orders, make requests, and also give recommendations and advice. But how and when do we make these French commands?
In this post, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about the French imperative: in what context you should use it, how to form and conjugate French commands, and how to use l’impératif with object pronouns. We’ll also touch on the l’impératif passé, the French past imperative, which is a rarer imperative tense.
French commands: Usages
The impératif présent is quite a frequent tense in French language, equivalent to the English imperative form.
Its main purpose is to give orders and commands. Depending on the tone, it can also be used to make requests (polite commands), give recommendations, and express desires.
- Come – Viens
- Sit down – Assis-toi
- Wait – Attends
Similarly to English, it’s quite a straightforward way to give orders. Likewise, keep in mind that it may appear a bit rude, depending on the context and the relationship you have with the person you’re giving the command to.
Always make sure to use the second-person plural, vous, to address someone you don’t know well or you want to show respect to in the impératif, and add a s’il vous plaît (please) to make it even more polite. (If you’re unsure whether to use tu or vous, check out our beginner post on tu vs vous for a full explanation of the different forms of you in French.)
- Please, come. – Venez, s’il vous plaît.
- Sit down, please. – Asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît.
- Please, wait. – Attendez, s’il vous plaît.
We consider that there are two types of French commands: affirmative commands and negative commands. Affirmative commands are used to tell someone to do something. For instance, you may say:
- Show me your drawing. – Montre-moi ton dessin.
- Turn right. – Tourne à droite.
As for negative commands, they are used to tell someone not to do something. Negative commands of the impératif are commonly used to prohibit actions:
- Don’t look! – Ne regardez pas !
- Let’s not enter yet! – N’entrons pas encore !
How to form French commands
French commands are relatively easy to form, aside from some exceptions and specificities to do with object pronouns. But well… it wouldn’t be French if it were too easy, right?
The first thing to know to form the impératif is that, unlike other French tenses, subject pronouns are omitted. The impératif is nonetheless conjugated to three of them (tu, vous, and nous), as opposed to just two in English (you and we):
- The second-person singular tu is used to form commands to a person we are familiar with.
- The second-person plural vous is used to give orders to a group of people, or to use the polite form to a single person.
- The first-person plural nous is used to form commands that involve both the person that speaks, and others. In English, it is translated with let’s.
If you need a refresher on tu, vous, nous, and other the personal pronouns, we recommend you start with our post on the French subject pronouns.
French imperative conjugation
The good news is that that l’impératif conjugation starts with the same form as le présent de l’indicatif (the simple present indicative tense). Check our post on French conjugation for an overview of the different French tenses.
So, to form French commands, simply conjugate the verb in the present indicative, whether for tu, vous, or nous, and drop the pronoun. By using these conjugations like this, you’re giving French commands!
There’s one difference between the tu conjugations in impératif and présent de l’indicatif, however, which is that the impératif tu conjugation of -er verbs usually drops the final “s.” We’ll go into more detail on regular imperative French conjugation in the detailed section below.
Object pronouns in the French imperative
The only complication with the French imperative comes when using it with object pronouns. Direct object pronouns can replace direct objects and are the following: me (m’), te (t’), le, la, nous, vous, and les. Their position changes depending on whether it’s a positive or a negative command.
In affirmative commands, object pronouns come after the verb and all words are connected by a hyphen. Furthermore, we used stressed pronouns here, so me becomes moi and te becomes toi.
- Excuse me. – Excusez-moi.
- Let’s wait for him. – Attendons-le.
- Stand up. – Lève-toi.
If there are both direct and indirect object pronouns used with the verb, they all come after the verb and are linked by hyphens.
- Buy them for me. – Achetez-les-moi.
- Give it to them. – Donne-le-leur.
With negative commands, on the other hand, the object pronoun comes before the verb, as is normally the case with other tenses.
- Let’s not listen to him. – Ne l’écoutons pas.
- Don’t talk to them. – Ne leur parlez pas.
- Don’t stand up. – Ne te lève pas.
- Don’t buy them for me. – Ne me les achetez pas.
Note that in spoken French, some incorrect forms are actually commonly used. For instance, you will often hear “donne-moi-z’en” instead of “donne-m’en.” Similarly, “rends-moi-le” is less formal than the grammatically correct “rends-le-moi”.
French impératif conjugation
The French impératif is a rather easy tense to form, as it’s based on the same conjugation as the simple present indicative tense. We start with the tu, vous, and nous conjugations, and similarly to English, we drop the pronoun. For -er verbs in the tu conjugation, we also drop the final “s.”
For example, with the verb manger (to eat), tu manges becomes mange in the imperative form, vous mangez becomes mangez, and nous mangeons becomes mangeons.
- Eat your cereal ! – Mange tes céréales !
- Eat, it’s gonna be cold. – Mangez, cela va refroidir.
- Let’s eat, let’s not wait for them. – Mangeons, ne les attendons pas.
The same goes for all the -er verbs, such as donner (to give):
|Subject||-er verbs: Donner|
As you’ve hopefully noticed with these two examples, in the second-person singular tu conjugation of verbs ending with -er, the last -s is dropped, in contrast with the present indicative tu conjugation.
This rule just applies to our conjugation of -er verbs in the impératif, and even among these there’s an exception: if the conjugated verb is directly followed by the adverbial pronouns y or en. In that case, to make the pronunciation easier, the -s remains. This is the case, for instance, with vas-y (go there), penses-y (think about it), profites-en (enjoy it), etc.
For verbs of other groups, that rule doesn’t apply and the -s remains. Let’s look at some standard examples of these other verb forms in the next two tables.
French imperative form of -ir verbs:
|Subject||-ir verbs: Partir|
French imperative form of -re verbs:
|Subject||-re verbs: Vendre|
French imperative: Irregular verbs
Good news: there are only four verbs that have an irregular French imperative conjugation. These are among the most useful verbs though, so make sure to learn them.
The irregular impératif verbs in French are être (to be), avoir (to have), savoir (to know), and vouloir (to want). These four verbs are not formed based on the indicative present, but rather on the stem of the present subjunctive. We’ll cover all four of them here.
French imperative conjugation: Être
The verb être, meaning to be, is one of the most important verbs in French. Review your knowledge with our complete post on the meaning, conjugation, and use of the verb être.
French imperative conjugation: Avoir
Like être, avoir, meaning to have, is an essential verb of the French language. Check out our guide to avoir conjugation to ensure you master it.
French imperative conjugation: Savoir
Savoir is a very common verb meaning to know in French. For an explanation of savoir, and of the other French word which translates as to know, check out our post on savoir vs connaître.
French imperative conjugation: Vouloir
Vouloir means to want in French, and has a lot of nuances depending on its tense and how it’s used. We cover this verb in detail in our post on how to use vouloir in French.
French impératif passé
All the previous explanations about l’impératif were dealing with the present tense of the imperative mood. There also exists a past imperative tense in French: the impératif passé. It is rarely used, however.
L’impératif passé is a compound tense, which means that it is formed of a conjugated auxiliary verb (either avoir or être) and the past participle. Thus, by conjugating the auxiliary verb in the present impératif and adding the past participle, we get the impératif passé.
For a more detailed explanation on forming compound tenses, we can recommend our post on the passé composé.
The impératif passé is essentially used to command that something be done before a certain moment.
- Have your room cleaned before dad comes back! – Aie rangé ta chambre avant que papa ne rentre !
- Please everyone, be gone before my parents get home. – S’il vous plaît, soyez partis avant que mes parents ne rentrent.
- Have your homework handed in by the end of the week. – Ayez rendu vos devoirs avant la fin de la semaine.
L’impératif is quite a useful tense to know, as it’s used to give orders, prohibit actions, or even make requests.
Fortunately, making French commands with the l’impératif is fairly straightforward, as long as you already know your imperative present tense: aside from the rule whereby -er verbs usually drop their final -s in the tu conjugations, the impératif conjugation is the same as the présent de l’indicatif. There are only four irregular verbs in the French imperative, which we covered here.
The trickiest aspect of this tense is to correctly place the object pronouns: after the verb in an affirmative command, including the use of hyphens and the stressed pronouns moi and toi, and before the verb in a negative command. In any case, French speakers may themselves be quite flexible on that rule, especially in spoken language.