Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I saw a sentence: "I would like to be a scientist who can command English."

What do you think about usage of "command"? Should we say " ...who has a good command of English."?

Could you please explain which sentence is better? If it it wrong usage, tell me the reason. Thank you in advance.

share|improve this question
The second sentence is correct. The first is not. One does not simply command English :-) –  Rory Alsop Jul 3 '13 at 12:45
Oh, Thank you very much for you quick answer! I would appriciate if you could tell me why the first one is incorrect. –  Ume Jul 3 '13 at 12:47
What would you command English to do? –  Rory Alsop Jul 3 '13 at 13:01
You can command English, and so can I, and so can any man; but does it obey when you command it? –  Peter Shor Jul 3 '13 at 13:08
To be able to command English or any other language you need to be a conjurer not a scientist :) –  Tanninah Jul 3 '13 at 13:53

1 Answer 1

Today the verb "command" commonly implies to most users that you would order someone to do something. Since a language like English cannot follow an order, you cannot command it.

But there is a somewhat old-fashioned, maybe obsolete use of the verb command which is reflected in this quote from Tennyson:

"My harp would prelude woe—I cannot all command the strings."

Here the meaning is control or mastery, which is meaning III in the Oxford English Dictionary. And with this meaning (which, in the OED, has been documented to be current until the mid 1800s), your phrase is certainly possible, and actually still (though rarely) in use today:

"It is easy to see that the idea of ‘knowing’ a language will be in the same trouble, as will the project of characterising the abilities or capacities a person must have if he commands a language." ~ Donald Davidson, A nice derangement of epitaphs

So in fact the sentence you saw is correct.

share|improve this answer
"correct" in a technical sense, yes, but I think if you tried to use it in everyday speech you'd get odd looks. –  Lynn Jul 3 '13 at 14:35
Thank you very much for your instructive answers. Now I feel good to know correct usage of 'command'. –  Ume Jul 3 '13 at 14:59
@Lynn You are right. Do you feel my note that the usage is old-fashioned is enough to warn anyone of that reaction? Or do I need to spell it out? –  what Jul 3 '13 at 16:13
@what - On second reading, I think you say that with your use of 'old fashioned' and 'rarely'. –  Lynn Jul 3 '13 at 21:05
What?! People didn't know this? And even think it is not quite acceptable today? The OD has not changed its entries yet, and I don't think it would any time soon. Both the OP's sentences are grammatically correct and make sense. –  Kris Jul 4 '13 at 5:45

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.