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Thursday, January 22, 2015

When we have to introduce the present subjunctive tense to our students, we notice that the lesson is programmed in many manuals to be taught after the imperative has already been introduced. I’ve heard colleagues of mine wondering what the big hurry to get to the imperative is, especially since its function can also be carried out with an obligation periphrasis, which avoids the confusion of new morphology etc. I always tell them that, for me anyway, the imperative is a perfect tense to help teach the present subjunctive. In fact I use it to help make the transition easier for students, less painful.

The subjunctive comes up with levels no lower than B1, when our students should start developing an understanding of the grammar even if it’s just on a basic level.  That’s why when it’s time to start working on the subjunctive in class I strike up a philosophical conversation about language (not just Spanish…any language), and students already know, even if just on a rudimentary level, the imperative form.

One of the advantages of the imperative is that you just have to learn the morphology, like with the present indicative, because everyone knows how to use it. Plus, the imperative, or giving commands to put it more clearly, is one of the first things that babies hear as soon as they’re born. Remember: "Duérmete, niño, duérmete yaaa", "mira papi, mira al abuelo", "come, nene, come...". In the baby’s tender mental structure, these commands are being structured together with more simple and general forms of the verb, which fortunately can be used for just about everything: the present.

To get a better idea of why the imperative is the way it is, we’ll look at an example that everyone can understand. Imagine that you have a dog named Chispita, for example, and you tell him in the park: “Chispita, por favor, ¿serías tan amable de acercarte a mí?" You may be thinking at this point that I’ve kind of lost my marbles, and you’d be very correct in that assessment, because nobody would give a command to a dog that way (or even to a person…)

A command, to be functional, must be as compact as possible. That’s why in Spanish, when A. Grijelmo, or the language genius as I call him, decides to create a simple and compact form that functions to give commands, part of the basis of the structure is simpler: the present. It seems clear that in this new form that we call the imperative, YO doesn’t exist (does anyone give themselves commands?) nor does Él/ELLA (which by definition is the person who is not present, and tossing a command out into the air would also be kind of weird). So we end up with this imperative in a Tú form, an Usted from, and their corresponding plurals, always respecting the notion that these must be as compact as possible. Negative commands are the same, given the existence of a wonderful word: the adverb NO, which is already pretty clear.

So, we can agree that the most common imperative is Tú (giving an order and showing respect is thoughtful, but not very functional), and we need the most compact form possible… dipping into our stock of forms which is stored in the foundation of the language (the present), it’s clear that the third person singular is the shortest of them all. That’s why the Tú imperative usually coincides with that form. The contexts of the present and the imperative are different enough to make confusing them not a problem.

You could of course retort: “But what about the irregular verbs?”. We’re getting there. So, there are 8 irregular verbs in the Tú form: hacer, tener, poner, salir, venir, ser, ir and decir. These last 3, which are grouped together for a reason, are verbs that are irregular in nearly all their forms given their constant usage, so it comes as no surprise that their imperative Tú forms are: sé, ve and di (can you get any more compact than that?). I usually list the other five verbs as follows: dorm, com, viv, escrib, soñ, viaj, habl, comprend... and then I ask students to tell me what verbs they are. They all respond quite easily, and I point out the fact that the endings AR, ER, and IR don’t really mean anything, that the meaning is in the root of the verb. That lets us identify the meaning even when the infinitive is incomplete.

Then I justify the notion that these 5 verbs are NOT actually irregular, because the imperative is made with the most compact form possible: the root. In other words: HACER – haz (with the change in spelling to maintain the sound of the verb), TENER - ten; PONER - pon; SALIR - sal and VENIR - ven.

What about the rest of the imperative forms? You’ll have to find out next week. Patience my friend.

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