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I am analysing a speech and I'm unsure as to whether this sentence is an imperative sentence or not:

"We must act and act now"

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2 Answers 2

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Short answer

This is a declarative sentence, used as a directive. Although it is a directive, it is not an imperative. Declarative sentences are never imperatives. A quick way to tell it's not an imperative is that it has a modal verb, must. Modal verbs cannot occur in imperative constructions.


Full answer

  1. Go! (imperative construction)

The term imperative is used to describe a grammatical construction. To describe the social act - the typical illocutionary force of such utterances - we use the term directive or command. Very often we can issue directives without using imperatives:

  • Would you take a seat please?

The sentence above is a directive, not a question. However, it uses an interrogative clause, not an imperative one. It uses the grammar we normally see in questions. So we need to be careful to distinguish between imperative a word that describes a grammatical construction and terms like command or directive, which describe the type of social act or behaviour. Imperatives are constructions which are usually used as directives.

In English there are two basic types of imperatives, ordinary Imperatives and Let-Imperatives. Let-imperatives are a special case, so we won't look at them here.

Imperatives involve a plain form of the verb. This is the form you see in a dictionary. Plain forms have no tense - there is no inflection of the verb form for time reference - and so imperatives also have no tense.

Usually imperatives have no overt Subject. In these cases we understand the Subject as you. So sentence (1) is understood as :

  • [You] go!

Imperative clauses are unique in English in not needing an overt Subject. All other clause types require overt Subjects. But notice that we can use overt Subjects with imperatives:

  • I'm not going to do it. You do it!

Imperatives can also have third person subjects:

  • Everybody stand up.

To see that imperatives have no tense, consider the sentence above. The Subject of the verb is Everybody, if the verb was present tense it would read:

  • Everybody stands up.

This, of course, isn't an imperative but a regular declarative sentence. Here the third person S shows that the verb tensed, specifically it is present tense.

To negate an imperative we use the auxiliary verb DO and the word not, or the contraction don't:

  • Do not stand up when she enters.
  • Don't stand up when she enters.
  • Don't you stand up when she enters.
  • Don't everybody stand up when she enters.

Notice that the position of the word don't in imperatives is different from its position in declarative sentences. In declaratives don't comes after the Subject, but in imperatives it comes before the Subject (if there is a Subject at all).

Lastly, imperative clauses cannot coordinate with declarative or interrogative clauses when using the coordinator and:

  • *Where are we going and go!
  • *We're going into town and go!

The Original Poster's example:

We must act and act now.

This seems to be a directive, which might suggest that it's an imperative. Let's see. If is an imperative, we should be able to remove the Subject and the sentence should still be good:

  • ?Must act and act now.

This is understandable, but doesn't seem like a complete sentence. So maybe no definitive evidence here. If this is an imperative we should be able to negate the sentence with don't. Let's try:

  • *Don't we must act and act now. (ungrammatical)

That's ungrammatical. The proper negation would be:

  • We mustn't act, and mustn't act now.

Here the second must is necessary for the negation of the second verb phrase.

Another thing that tells us that this is not an imperative is that it uses a modal verb. Modal verbs cannot occur in imperative constructions for several reasons. First of all, modal verbs have no plain form. Secondly modal verbs are always inherently tensed - in other words they only have a tensed form. Thirdly modal verbs don't co-occur with the auxiliary verb DO. We never see them both at the beginning of the same verb phrase.

We know that it is not possible for the second act now to be an imperative because we know that we must act is not an imperative, and imperatives cannot coordinate with declarative clauses.

Conclusion

The sentence we must act and act now is a declarative sentence used as a directive. The modal verb must is taking a coordination of verb phrases as a Complement. The structure of the sentence is:

  • We must [[act] and [act now]].

We understand it as:

  • We must act and we must act now!

NVZ has some interesting information about the rhetorical device used in this sentence in their post.

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    Good answer. You could add that we can check to see if a sentence can be an embedded imperative after ask/request/order/command: "We asked that he not open the window."
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 1, 2016 at 14:53
  • @GregLee Thanks. I might try and do that later. I'm not up on my embedded imperatives / mandatives though, so I'll have to do some homework first ... Feb 1, 2016 at 14:59
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    Iirc, McCawley discusses in TSPE whether the construction I mentioned is a subjunctive or an imperative, and concludes that it is an imperative.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 1, 2016 at 15:07
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It is not an imperative. @Araucaria has explained it well.

However, it is using a figure of speech called Anadiplosis, since the word act is placed at the end of first sentence and at the beginning of the last.

We must act, and act now!

Other examples:

  • "Strength through purity, purity through faith." — Chancellor Adam Susan, V for Vendetta

  • "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Jesus in Matthew 23:12.

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  • Except act is not "placed ... at the beginning of the last [sentence]", because the "act now" is not a sentence.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 1, 2016 at 15:13
  • @GregLee clauses are also considered. Thanks for pointing it out.
    – NVZ
    Feb 1, 2016 at 15:17

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