Here's an example:

It is our imperative to bomb the volcano early, thus preventing a much larger eruption later.

Is "imperative" correct there? It seems to be synonymous with "duty", or maybe "prerogative". I can tell it's being used as a noun, but usually the word is used as an adjective meaning "very important". But can it be used like this as a noun?

(Can someone tag this any better? I don't know enough about English grammar to choose the right tags, but I'm pretty sure the "imperative" tag is not appropriate here; I can't really articulate why, something about verb aspect?)

  • What does your dictionary say? Or an online dictionary? The post should be closed as the poster did not consult a dictionary.
    – rogermue
    Jun 27, 2015 at 11:18
  • As WS2 indicates (2) and in his example it is part of the vocabulary of Ministers and Generals (first imperative, our absolute imperative, immediare imperative).
    – Hugh
    Jun 27, 2015 at 12:31

2 Answers 2


Yes. The OED supplies both adjectival and noun meanings. The latter are senses B1 and B2a & b.

B1 is the grammar sense, of 'the imperative' - that part of the verb expressing command.

2a derives from the grammatical sense as a command of someone for something of great importance.

2b concerns the the categorical imperative a philosophical concept propounded inter alia by Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804).

But the noun is nowadays used loosely in English as an action of essential necessity. e.g. The first imperative of any government is the protection of its own citizens.

1. Grammar. The imperative mood, or a verbal form belonging to it (see A. 1).

1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement Introd. 36 Je puis wanteth his present imparatyve and his present optatyve.

1624 N. De Lawne tr. P. Du Moulin Elements Logick 108 Imperatives, Optatives, and Subjunctives enter not into an Enuntiation.

1728 E. Chambers Cycl. Imperative,..is one of the Modes or Manners of Conjugating a Verb, serving to express a Commandment.

1755 Johnson Gram. Eng. Tongue in Dict. The Imperative prohibitory is seldom applied in the second person..without the word do; as Stop him, but do not hurt him.

1871 H. J. Roby Gram. Latin Lang. §581 The imperative present appears to consist of shortened forms of the indicative present.

2. An imperative action, speech, condition, etc.; an action, etc. involving or expressing a command; a command.

1606 W. Birnie Blame of Kirk-buriall xvi. sig. D4v, The Lords lawes are either imperatiues of good or inhibitiues of ill.

1633 T. Adams Comm. 2 Peter (iii. 16) 1452 There be..such mysticall allusions, such majesticall imparatives.

a1856 W. Hamilton Lect. Metaphysics (1859) II. xlvi. 516 The unconditional imperative of the moral law.

1868 A. Bain Mental & Moral Sci. (1875) 459 There is no act however trivial which cannot be raised to the position of a moral act, by the imperative of society.

2b. Categorical imperative: see categorical adj. 1c.

1796 F. A. Nitsch Gen. View Kant's Princ. conc. Man 195 An Imperative..which is founded upon reason itself..is a Categorical Imperative which represents an action as necessary in itself.

1817 S. T. Coleridge Biogr. Lit. 70 The unconditional command, or (in the technical language of his school) the categorical imperative, of the conscience.

1888 Pall Mall Gaz. 29 Oct. 2/2 The practical importance of the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ has always seemed to me to lie in the fact that it invests His teaching with the authority of the Categorical Imperative.


The word "imperative" has been used as a noun meaning a command, but not recently. Are you sure your sentence didn't read, "It is imperative ...."? In that more usual locution, the use is adjectival and means required or essential.

Modern usage as a noun means the condition of necessity ("a military and political imperative"), an unconditional duty (Kant's "categorical imperative"), or the class of verb forms used to express a command (a stand-in for the imperative mood).

  • Yes, I'm sure it did not read "It is imperative ..." There is definitely an "our" in there. But in your 3rd example, it seems to be an adjective since it comes right before the noun "mood". I did not know, however, that as a noun it implies some kind of necessity. I thought it only meant...something...something like importance...maybe because they both start with "imp".
    – DrZ214
    Jun 27, 2015 at 10:28
  • Then "our imperative" is "our command," but it still sounds a bit archaic. In my third example, it's a nominalization: "In English all imperatives are formed by the bare infinitive." An imperative is more than something important; it's a necessity. In the etymology, It's not "imp" that's meaningful. It's "im" ("in") + a word beginning with "p." In the case of "important," it's "portare," the Latin to carry; for "imperative," it's "parare," the Latin to prepare.
    – deadrat
    Jun 27, 2015 at 10:40
  • You call Kant modern?
    – user21820
    Jun 27, 2015 at 11:07

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