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Can an imperative sentence have a subject?

This is a followup to this comment.

User Schmuddi asserted that:

English imperative sentences are subjectless.

but did not cite any source or authority.

I responded that each of the following imperative sentences has a subject:

  • George, open the door!
  • Smith, answer the phone!
  • Team Five, get that test working today!
  • Battalion, Halt!
  • Mr Slater, put her on the starboard tack!

In each case te person or group to whom the command is addressed starts the sentence, in the usual position of a subject. In many cases a command may be unclear unless the person (or group) to whom it is addressed is clearly stated. It is therefore essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Given the default Subject-verb-object order of an English sentence, it seems obvious to me that these are subjects. In "George gave me that phone", the subject is clearly "George". I think that in the roughly parallel sentence "George, fix that phone" the subject is obviously also "George". If "George" isn't the subject of the second sentence, then what is it?

Consider also imperatives where the addrss is more generic, such as:

Someone, get me some water!

Does it make any sense to say that there is an implied subject "you" making the sentence:

Someone, [you] get me some water!

I don't think so.

As Schmuddi has asked for a reference on this, I would appreciate any answers citing a source of some sort for their position on whether or not these are subjects.

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    There is an implied subject in English: you.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28 at 17:02
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    No, if you address a person directly, you say their name: John, go to school now!. Sorry but it's everywhere and I just can't seem to dredge up an authority on it. That person is not the subject in the grammatical sense, no.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28 at 17:07
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    Yes, David, I am. "John, [you] go to school". John is "vocative", a direct form of address. It is not part of the grammar of the rest of the utterance. One might even argue that John and the implied you are in apposition to each other. But don't quote me.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28 at 17:15
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    I'd think that the addressee's placement at the beginning of the sentence is not strong evidence that it's a subject. Consider: John, I told you to go to school; George, is the door open?; Smith, the phone is ringing.
    – Juhasz
    Apr 28 at 17:20
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    A simple test for subjecthood is this: If the NP is set apart inonationally and by a comma in writing, then it's a vocative. NPs that are linked intonationally with the verb and not set apart with a comma are subjects. Thus, the NPs in your examples are all vocatives.
    – BillJ
    Apr 29 at 7:26

3 Answers 3

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OK, first the vocatives.
When we name the person we're addressing, the term for that is a Vocative noun phrase. For instance:

  • Honey, I'm home.
  • Mom, you just don't understand.
  • Sandra, he's coming to the wedding and that's that.

Note that these sentences all have subjects, of first, second, and third person. Only second person is the same person as the addressee; the others aren't. So vocatives aren't necessarily the subjects of sentences they appear in. They're just vocatives, appearing pretty much outside the sentence structure.

So that explanation can't work for imperatives. It's true that most imperatives don't appear with subjects. That's been a problem for grammarians for a long time, and the explanation they came up with thousands of years ago is called "You Understood". It says that, yes, imperatives DO have a subject, and that subject is you (understood). That is, the subject is really you, second person pronoun, BUT (and it's a big but) that particular you is not actually there in the sentence. Except that it is in every other sense.

For instance, verb phrases like look at ____ in the mirror can take reflexive pronouns after at:

  • I look at myself/*yourself/*himself in the mirror

but

  • You look at *myself/yourself/*himself in the mirror.

In other words, you can tell from the reflexive pronoun what the subject is. So what reflexives do imperatives take?

  • Look at *myself/yourself/*himself in the mirror! (2nd-person yourself only)

Since the reflexive pronoun depends on the subject, even when the subject isn't present, we can say with some certainty that (a) yes, imperatives have subjects, and (b) the subject of an imperative is second person (i.e, you). But the subject doesn't need to appear, because it's understood.

Once you come to understand that sometimes words aren't where you expect them to be, you can probly come to grips with the fact that, while every clause has a subject in English, the subjects of most infinitive, gerund, and participle clauses are also "understood". For instance, the "understood" subject of take out the garbage in the first sentence below is Gloria, while in the second it's Bill.

  • Bill wanted Gloria to take out the garbage.
  • Bill promised Gloria to take out the garbage.
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    Does this mean, then, that in Everybody put your hands up!, the imperative's subject is "you", and so "Everybody" is just a vocative and not an explicit subject?
    – Rosie F
    Apr 28 at 19:55
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    Notice that you can add you: Everybody! You put your hands up, you hear? But you can't add any other pronoun. The imperative's subject is always you, as you can tell by checking a reflexive. Apr 28 at 19:57
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    @RosieF No: in that example, the subject is "everybody". We can tell it's subject because unlike vocatives it's not set apart prosodically or by punctuation. Similarly: "Nobody move" and "Somebody at the front write their name on the board".
    – BillJ
    Apr 29 at 6:36
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    Also good "Somebody at the front write your name on the board". Apr 29 at 14:06
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    "Everybody" in that case sounds like's it's just "you" plural.
    – WBT
    Apr 29 at 15:20
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Does it make any sense to say that there is an implied subject "you" making the sentence:

Yes. Here are some sources discussing the "you-understood" that include examples like the one that you cited. There is still a 'you' understood when you add an addressee. It is read as "George, (you) open the door."

Sometimes the "you" is even included. Think of a mother yelling "George, you open the door this instant or you're in big trouble!"

As Lambie mentioned in their comment, the name is in the vocative case or, in other words, is a noun of direct address, which represents a thing or person being addressed. It cannot be the subject.

https://www.thoughtco.com/imperative-sentence-grammar-1691152

https://www.dummies.com/article/academics-the-arts/language-language-arts/grammar-vocabulary/detecting-understood-verbs-243171/

https://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/imperative-sentences.html

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    Well done on the diligence front. :) This should quash all qualms.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28 at 17:26
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Imperative sentences tend not to have an explicit subject but will always have an implied subject. This is because every verb requires a subject that engages in the action described by the verb whether that subject is explicitly named or not.

Stylistically, imperative sentences, by dropping the subject, are shorter and this emphasises the imperative nature of the sentence. Compare:

You do it!

to

Do it!

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  • ' ... every verb requires a subject that engages in the action described by the verb' Is that true with passive constructions? Apr 29 at 13:34
  • @EdwinAshworth: Yes. For example, the ball was hit by him. Apr 29 at 16:43
  • But in 'The ball was hit by him,' The ball is the subject, though 'He' (Gayle? Root?) is the covert agent. Apr 30 at 19:01

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