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The French Imperative

The French Imperative - Part 2

In one of our new videos this week, Patricia recites Charles Baudelaire's "L'Horloge" (The Clock), a gloomy but rousing poem about the passage of time and the importance of memory. We'll leave it up to you to analyze the many existential questions this poem raises. Instead, in this lesson, we'll focus on a more basic aspect of the poem: its repeated use of the imperative mood, which expresses a command or request. You'll find a particularly ominous instance of the imperative in the poem's final line: 

 

Où tout te dira: Meurs, vieux lâche! il est trop tard!
When all will say to you: Die, old coward! It is too late!
Cap. 25, Le saviez-vous? - La poésie française: Baudelaire - Part 2

 

The imperative is fairly simple to learn, since it only exists in the second-person singular (tu), second-person plural (vous), and first-person plural (nous) forms, and because it's conjugated almost exactly like the present indicative. To make a verb imperative, you just take the present indicative tuvous, or nous form and drop the pronoun. That's it! So in the example above, meurs is the present indicative tu form of the verb mourir (to die). If Baudelaire had left in the tu, he would have had: Tu meurs, vieux lâche! (You are dying, old coward!) But by simply removing the tu, he changed the meaning to something much more forceful.

 

The only tricky aspect of the imperative comes with verbs ending in -er. While -ir and -re verbs are exactly the same in the present indicative and the imperative, there's a special rule for conjugating -er verbs in the imperative in the tu form: in addition to dropping the tu, you also drop the -s at the end of the verb: 

 

Tu manges tes légumes. / Mange tes légumes. 
You are eating your vegetables. / Eat your vegetables. 

 

You don't have to worry about changing the verb in the nous and vous forms: 

 

Nous mangeons nos légumes. / Mangeons nos légumes.
We are eating our vegetables. / Let's eat our vegetables. 

 

Vous mangez vos légumes. / Mangez vos légumes. 
You are eating your vegetables. / Eat your vegetables. 

 

In "L'Horloge," Baudelaire makes frequent use of the command souviens-toi (remember):

 

Souviens-toi que le Temps est un joueur avide
Qui gagne sans tricher, à tout coup! c'est la loi.

Remember that Time is a greedy player
Who wins without cheating, every time! It's the law.
Cap. 18-19, Le saviez-vous? - La poésie française: Baudelaire - Part 2

 

You might be wondering why there's a toi after souviens. The reason is that with reflexive verbs such as se souvenir (to remember), the object pronoun moves after the verb in the imperative. So instead of tu te souviens (you remember), you have souviens-toi (not souviens-te). Instead of nous nous souvenons (we remember) and vous vous souvenez (you remember), you have souvenons-nous (let's remember) and souvenez-vous (remember). Here's another example with s'asseoir (to sit): 

 

Assieds-toi.
Have a seat.
Cap. 4, Le Jour où tout a basculé: À la recherche de mon père - Part 7 

 

We'll continue our discussion of the imperative in our next lesson. In the meantime, why not read some more Baudelaire

Grammar

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