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My 3rd grade son was supposed to write a series of sentences, and write whether they were "imperative" or "declarative" (or "interogative" or "exclamatory", but those aren't relevant for this question).

The sentence he wrote was "You must join with the giants."

My thoughts were that, despite the fact that this sounds like an order, that this sentence was declarative. My wife insisted it was imperative. My third grader was confused as all get out by our contradictory opinions.

Her thoughts were that an imperative tells someone to do something...that's what this sentence is. QED.

I was thinking that although it sounds like an imperative type order, by changing the words slightly, say changing the "you" into "I", or "must" into "should" or "might" it becomes more obvious (to me) that the sentence is making a declaration of state, rather than an order for immediate action.

I think I'm right, but would like to be sure (or be told why I am wrong). I'd also like the correct terminology pointed out to me where I've doubtless messed it up.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

No, it is not in the imperative. An imperative verb almost never has a subject. These are imperative sentences:

  • Go to the store.
  • Michael, go to the store.
  • You give me that right now.

These are all declarative sentences:

  • You are going to the store.
  • You will go to the store.
  • You might go to the store.
  • You should go to the store.
  • You have to go to the store.
  • You ought to go to the store.
  • You shall go to the store.
  • You must go to the store.

How you want to classify this one, however, may vary:

  • Let's go to the store.
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That's correct, by the steampunk Latinate rules. In Latin, all the verbs were marked (including special forms for "let's"), and you could tell the imperatives from the declaratives instantly, like color-coding. In English, the distinction is not as useful, because real imperatives are thin on the ground; they're almost always mollified or metaphored, because using a bald imperative is tantamount to pulling rank. There are lots of ways to do this; they teach courses about it, in fact, under the name of "Management". –  John Lawler May 7 '13 at 18:23
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It's not me forcing children to memorize BS in the schools. I'm not responsible for the faults of their teachers. I'm just responsible for not lying to them. If they find out too early that they're being lied to, too bad. –  John Lawler May 7 '13 at 23:56
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@JohnLawler How is it a lie to ask children to distinguish between “declarative” sentences and “interrogative” sentences? It’s just a model to help kids figure out what sort of terminal punctuation to place at the end of a sentence? Don’t you think it helps. –  tchrist May 8 '13 at 0:11
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Simple. If you mean it to be a question, and you expect an answer, use a question mark. Anything else, use a period. –  John Lawler May 8 '13 at 0:41
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@JohnLawler (...continued) Likewise, one could try to teach high school students introductory physics by going into the theory of relativity, instead of classical physics because Newtonian physics isn't completely true. But the great majority of them wouldn't get it, because they're not ready for it yet. Kids understand that things are simplified for them, and accept that, as they grow older, things become more complicated than they first realized. As long as the the early methods are not too dogmatic and labeled as final truths etched in stone, I think they can be useful learning tools. –  Beska May 8 '13 at 12:59

"Join with the giants" is in the imperative mood. (It's a direct command. It has an implied subject of "you," but the subject itself is not stated.)

"You must join with the giants" in the declarative mood because it expresses a fact not a command. For example, you could say "You must join with the giants if you're going to fight the dragons."

The confusion arises from the usage of the deontic modal "must." Because a deontic modal implies the way the world ought to be rather than the way the world is, it is a statement of belief about what needs to be changed. It is not, however, an explicit command to change anything.

For your third grader, it's probably fine just to say that it's an imperative because it's saying you have to do something. Let him learn the subtler linguistic distinction when he's older. For now, meaning matters more than syntax.

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I like the last paragraph. This is exactly what I was worrying about...whether I was going to potentially sacrifice his overall understanding for the sake of a pedantic point. "Good enough for now" is excellent way to look at this. –  Beska May 7 '13 at 19:38
    
@beska: except the last paragraph doesn't help answer a test question. In schools, as opposed to real life, there is only one answer. But also, trying to get one answer helps the student develop reasoning. –  Mitch May 9 '13 at 12:52
    
@Mitch True. In that case, we just need to talk to the teacher to find out what the rules they're looking for are. –  Beska May 9 '13 at 12:56

This is all about terminology. As the others have said, on a syntactic level, it is in the indicative mood (not imperative); on a semantic/illocutionary level, it is a directive (not an assertive, declarative, interrogative, or expressive). The term imperative is usually restricted to the syntactic mood, so you should probably be looking at that; then your son's sentence is indicative.

The other terms, however, make one think of illocutionary functions. The opposition imperative v. declarative makes it seem as though his teacher were confusing semantics with syntax or were just generally imprecise. In that case, it's anybody's guess what she meant. See Speech Acts and Moods.

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Why, a third grader could understand this stuff. Somebody run outside and bring me a third grader. –  Edwin Ashworth May 7 '13 at 18:33
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Children here are taught that all English sentences are one of four types: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. That’s really all there is to it. We do not need to bring Latinate verb morphology into it — and in fact, must not. That isn’t the point. Interrogative sentences end with a question mark, exclamatory ones with an exclamation point, and imperative ones (usually) have an implicit 2nd person subject (although sometimes with a vocative-of-attention). All the rest are declarative. That’s how they do things with our kids, and that is all the querent needs to know. –  tchrist May 7 '13 at 23:46
    
@tchrist: This is unrelated to Latin. –  Cerberus May 8 '13 at 4:16
    
@tchrist: 'Her thoughts were that an imperative tells someone to do something...that's what this sentence is.' Clever girl. She's using advanced analytical techniques - at her age. She sees that meaning is the real basis of language, and that syntax is merely a framework to facilitate accurate communication. And I feel she's being let down by an over-emphasis on (one? two? variants of) esoteric terminology and (one) prescriptive classification system. –  Edwin Ashworth May 8 '13 at 22:20

I've come across the following at http://voices.yahoo.com/four-kinds-sentences-declarative-interrogative-484238.html?cat=4 :

Four Kinds of Sentences: Declarative, Interrogative, Imperative and Exclamatory

... The best way to distinguish one sentence from the other is to memorize what each type of sentence does, for instance you can say, declarative sentences are the statement sentences, interrogative sentences are the question sentences, imperative sentences are the request and command sentences, or the giving order sentences, and exclamatory sentences are the ones that show a strong feeling or emotion. ...

I agree with the portion I've bolded, but buying into the above passage can be shown to lead to the contradictions we're discussing:

This analysis possibly identifies "You must join with the giants." (or certainly "You must join with the giants!" as a 'command sentence'. The 'what each type of sentence does' analysis thus cuts across the prescriptive syntax-based 'Declarative, Interrogative, Imperative and Exclamatory' analysis - which I believe John Lawler is saying is 'not a model of the English language' - as Cerberus has stated.

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