Imperatives in English and Turkish: From Direct Orders to Suggestions to Polite Requests (Part 2)
Updated: Mar 16
In English, an imperative utterance directly starts with a verb in its basic form (without any suffixes or the particle to). Imperatives generally do not have an explicitly expressed subject, although it is implied (as the 2nd-person pronoun you).
Turkish counterparts, however, are far more common and acceptable. Turkish speakers can choose from the available singular 2nd-person pronoun (sen) to express familiarity and the plural 2nd-person pronoun (siz) to convey politeness and formality (the pronouns may be stated explicitly or implicitly by being appropriately encoded into the verb suffix), in addition to at least five verb forms that signal the varying degrees of politeness and formality, as well as a number of formulaic frozen expressions.
English imperative commands are short, sharp verb forms, which are often used in military settings, prohibitions, and urgent messages. Imperatives are also regularly used in instructions, manuals, and recipes.
Advertisement and marketing materials commonly use imperative sentences to directly appeal to their target audiences and general consumers. Thanks to their directness and conciseness, imperatives are effective in print and digital technical writing and copywriting, including in IT documentation, instructions and commands in guides, manuals, knowledge bases, helpdesk support files, and UI elements:
Front rank, forward, march! Wash your hands before handling the food.
Mind the gap. Put your book away and listen.
Do not enter. Wait to be called. Upload the file and click OK.
Do not take the medication on empty stomach. Set the oven temperature at 350 °F.
Gotta run! Call me later! Just Do It!
Take the electric car, for example. Expect More. Pay Less.
Let me know a.s.a.p. Click Now
Take it easy, love! Contact Us
On their own, English imperative constructions may sound rather “bossy” and impolite. With only one imperative verb form used in both intimate and formal settings, English speakers have to resort to more creative ways to express milder directives or requests by constructing complex and long empathic expressions, in combination with linguistic politeness markers, such as formality markers, softeners, minimizers, hedges, and other formulaic expressions.
Turkish imperatives, on the other hand, are far more common and acceptable, not least thanks to the variety of imperative forms and the easily distinguishable informal and polite formal imperative forms:
Dikkat et. Girmeyin(iz). Haydi, gidelim! Lütfen oturun.
Be careful! Do not enter. Let's go! Please sit down.
Bir bakayım! Anlat, canım. Kahretsin! Kusura bakma.
Let me see? Tell me, love. Damn! Sorry. / Apologies.
Pekâlâ, orada bir yere otur. Haydi, anne, başlasana!
All right, have a seat in there. Hey, mom, have you started yet?
Allah [senden] razı olsun. Düşünsenize, bu çok eğlenceli.
God bless you. Think of it, this is very amusing.
Zahmet etmeyin! Beklesinler!
Don't go to any trouble! Let them wait! They must wait!
What distinguishes Turkish imperatives from English imperatives is the adherence to the so-called pronominal T-V distinction (from the Latin pronouns tu and vos), which refers to the contrasting uses in communication of sen and siz (sizler), and the use of multiple imperative verb forms in Turkish (∅, -in, -iniz, -sene, -senize)—to signal the varying degrees of politeness, which reflect the social relations based on solidarity and power.
Turkish Imperative Sentences
As I explained about English imperatives, in their basic form, they sound rather harsh and may come off as impolite. The Turkish counterparts, however, are far more common and acceptable thanks to the variety of imperative forms and the easily distinguishable polite forms in Turkish.
When we communicate in English or Turkish, the context, intonation, and our tone of voice (or pitch) help us distinguish an order from a request, a warning from an directive, a suggestion from a plea. In writing, this job is largely performed by the context and punctuation marks. For example, the use of a period instead of an exclamation point at the end of an imperative sentence signals its milder nature.
In both Turkish and English, imperative sentences are used to express a range of social situations and emotions. The table below compares the uses of imperatives in both English and Turkish:
T–V Distinction: Turkish Sen/Siz/Sizler
Unlike Turkish, contemporary English does not adhere to the so-called T–V distinction (from the Latin pronouns tu and vos), which refers to the contrasting uses in communication of the different forms of “you”s.
Turkish, however, distinguishes between the familiar and intimate sen (with no verb suffix) and the plural, the singular polite, or the general plural siz (with the verb suffixes being -(y)in or -(y)iniz). As is the case in many languages, the pluralized pronoun in Turkish, when used to a single addressee, indicates deference and/or distance.
Turkish also has the plural and the formal general plural sizler (used with the same verb suffixes -(y)in(iz)), which is usually used to make a clear reference to a plural addressee.
The table below lists the Turkish personal pronouns and their English equivalents, with the comments indicating the ways these pronouns are semantically used:
specific & general (sing.)
he, she, it
biz / bizler
specific & general (pl.)
siz / sizler
specific & general (sing. & pl.)
specific & general (pl.)
Table 1. Turkish Personal Pronouns
Roughly speaking, the more familiar or closer the Turkish speakers are, or wish to become, the greater the tendency for them to use the singular sen reciprocally. On the other hand, with increasing social distance between them, the speakers tend to use the polite siz reciprocally.
Where the status asymmetry in the relationship is perceived, a person of a higher status tends to use sen when addressing a person perceived to be of a lower status, while the lower status speaker is expected to respond using siz:
Neighbors (Equal Status): Sen–Sen Age Difference: Sen–Siz
A: Bir lira bozuğun var mı, komşu? A: Pardon, şunu verir misin, kızım?
B: Var, tabi. Bir dakika bekle, kızım getrisin. B: Tabii, beyefendi, siz rahatsız olmayın.
A: Do you have change for one lira, neighbor? A: I’m sorry, could you hand that down (for me), dear?
B: Sure. Just a minute, let my daughter bring it. B: Of course, sir. Don’t you trouble yourself with it.
Difference in Status: Sen–Siz Coworkers (Equal Status): Siz–Siz
A: Bana bir gazete alsana, Osman? A: Doğum gününüz kutlu olsun, Aysen Hanım.
B: Alırım, beyim. B: Teşekkür ederim, Ayhan Bey.
A: Osman, can you get me a newspaper? A: Happy birthday, Aysen Hanım.
B: Yes, (my) sir. B: Thank you, Ayhan Bey.
Higher formality, or rather generality, may be expressed by using the double plural 2nd-person sizler. When used like this, sizler tends to refer to the general, generic you (you all), e.g., the readers, the listeners:
Sayın dilenciler, röportajın bazı bölümlerini sizler için çevirdik.
Dear listeners, we have translated some important parts of the interview for you.
However, since siz can be ambiguous (as either plural or polite singular), the most common use of sizler is to make a clear reference to the plural addressee:
“Cennethisar'dan gelen ülkücü arkadaşlar sizler misiniz?” “Evet,” dedim.
“Are you with the Young Nationalists from Cennethisar?” “Yes,” I said.
Orhan Pamuk, Sessiz Ev
In a even more formal setting, the 3rd-person plural verb form -ler/-lar (correlated with o) used in agreement with a singular noun may also be used to signal increased formality. For example, this is how a waiter may address a customer:
Beyefendi ne alırlar?
What would the gentleman have?
A lower-status person may refer to a much higher-status person by adding -ler/-lar to the verb:
Kurşuni sabahı aydınlatan bir ışık gibi, Âlemin Temeli Padişahımız Hazretleri işte tam o anda içeri girdiler.
At that moment, like an ethereal light that illuminated the leaden morning, His Excellency Our Sultan, the Foundation of the World, entered the room.
Orhan Pamuk, Benim Adım Kırmızı
When Turkish speakers choose between the two distinct address pronouns towards a single addressee, they may be governed by multiple considerations such as age, gender, or kinship relations; familiarity, closeness, social distance, or formality; and social status and/or social class. Linguists summarize such considerations as the distinction between solidarity and power. These considerations reflect and encode the varying levels of politeness and formality (from intimate to neutral to formal) between the interlocutors.
Other Formal and Informal Ways of Address
In Turkish, there are various terms of address that accompany the use of the second person pronouns, including honorifics, kinship terms, terms of endearment, and diminutives, which distinguish between the formal and informal settings.
Sen can appear with the informality-signaling and solidarity-boosting address terms such as kinship terms (amcam, teyzem, kızım, abim yengem, etc.), kinship terms for non-relatives (abla, kardeş, abi, etc.), terms of endearment (canım, hayatım, bir tanem, etc.), diminutives based on the use of the -cık/-cik suffix (Ayşecik, babacığım, etc.), informal salutations (Sevgili ...), solidarity-marking humble occupation terms (postacı, sütçü, simitçi, etc.).
Siz is preferred in the contexts when power-based deferential and socially distant terms are used: the formality-marking honorifics (bey, hanım, efendi, beyefendi, hanımefendi, bay, bayan, Doktor, Profesör, etc.), formal salutations (Sayın ...), age-/status-marking terms (hoca, usta, etc.).
English Imperative vs. Turkish Imperatives
In English, the same plural 2nd-person imperative verb form is used when addressing a single person, more than one person, a friend, a stranger, an authority, or a general public:
Watch your steps, please. Do come in, Mrs. Norton.
Watch your steps, Jim! Do come in, guys.
Don't think that for one minute! Behave yourself, children.
Don't think much about that, honey. Baby, behave yourself, or I'll have to spank you.
Please be seated and take out your pens and paper. C’mon, give me a kiss, love.
formal, plural informal, singular
Just look at the beautiful scenery here, guys. Stir the spices and season with salt and pepper.
informal, plural neutral, general audience
A: “Ew,” Polly said, pointing at the steaks. “Is that what we’re eating tonight?”
B: “I haven’t decided yet,” Sheba said. “Come on, Polly. Be a love and lay the table.”
H. Heller, The Bridget Jones’ Diary
While the English second-person imperative verb form is grammatically plural but semantically does not distinguish between singular or plural, Turkish has a range of different imperative forms (see Table 2 below).
Direct & Indirect Imperatives
(Suggestions / Wishes)
[-(y)e + -(y)im]
[-sen + ya]
[-(y)e + -lim]
[-seniz + ya]
Table 2. Turkish Imperative Forms
The most logical addressee of imperative sentences is the second-person you. This is the most direct, and emotive, way of addressing, as well as commanding, ordering, instructing, or directing someone, which may be marked by a sense of urgency. This is probably why the imperative verb (and the imperative sentence) is the easiest to construct: one may need to get to the point as quickly as possible.
In both languages, imperatives are basic bare-infinitive verbs (without to in English and without any inflection suffixes in Turkish). What's more, a typical imperative sentence appropriately starts with the verb, with no explicit subject included, which immediately draws attention to the verb—the main message of the sentence. In Turkish, in fact, if a sentence starts with a verb, the verb receives the strongest focus-stress of the sentence.
While English has only one 2nd-person imperative form (you + ⵁ), Turkish has at least five different 2nd-person imperative forms, reflecting the varying degrees of familiarity, politeness, and formality:
✮ 2nd-person direct imperatives forms (the addressee is present):
Short informal singular form (sen/ ⵁ)
Plural or singular/plural polite form (siz/ -(y)in)
Formal singular/plural form (siz/ -(y)iniz)
Informal pleading singular form (sen/ -sene)
Plural/polite pleading form (siz/ -senize)
The essential aspect of the 2nd-person imperative is that it can only be expressed if the addressee is present and addressed directly by the speaker. But can we command someone who is not present?
In English, we cannot: When addressing a third person who is not present, English shifts into the optative form (the “close relative“ of imperatives), the so-called let-imperatives: e.g., Let him go, which in English can be understood as either a suggestion/ plea (Why don't you let him go?), or giving a directive (Let him go, I said), or giving a permission (Sure, let him go). In Turkish, however, one can command addressing a person who is not present. Hence, its name: indirect imperative form. An additional 3rd-person courtly plural verb form (-ler/-lar) is not an imperative or optative form. It's a high-deference verb form indirectly used o refer to a singular person of a very high status:
✮ 3rd-person indirect imperatives forms (the addressee is absent):
Singular indirect imperative form (o/ -sin)
Plural indirect imperative form (onlar/ -sin(ler))
Courtly plural indirect form (o/ -ler)
We cannot really command ourselves, however. Both English and Turkish agree on that, and both “borrow” an optative form to express the 1st-person directive:
✮ 1st-person optative forms (the addressee includes the speaker for plural):
Singular optative form (suggestion, permission) (ben/-(y)eyim)
Plural inclusive optative form (suggestion) (biz/-(y)elim)
Below are the detailed explanations and examples of each of these imperative and other forms.
1) Short (Informal) Singular Form: [sen/ⵁ]
Just as in English, the command (the short informal imperative) in Turkish is the verb stem itself. Semantically, however, the Turkish counterpart is milder than the English imperative.
Gör Görme Yap Yapma
Ye Yeme Kork Korkma
Some common situations when the informal sen may be used in communication between two people who may be:
Yerde cam parçaları var. Dikkat et. “Unutma... Erkenden gel(,) beni gör!”
There are pieces of glass on the floor. Be careful. “Don’t forget now. Get there early.”
Sabahattin Ali, Kürk Mantolu Madonna
Short imperatives in Turkish are often used in proverbs, sayings, and general maxims (short statements believed to contain wisdom or insight into human nature), including blessings, well-wishes, ill-wishes, curses, and other general formulaic expressions:
Bir ver, bin yalvar. Sağol(un).
Loan it once, chase it tons. Thanks.
= proverb (addressing the general you) = gratitude
Elinden gelenin en iyisini yap ama en kötüsünü bekle. Kendine iyi bak.
Do your best, but expect the worst. Take care.
= saying, maxim (addressing the general you) = leave-taking
Su gibi aziz ol! Kusura bakma, bunları vermeyi unuttum.
Live long and prosper! Sorry, I forgot to give you these.
= well-wishing, blessing = asking for apology
Allah'ım, bizi affet! Korkma, o ne yapacağını bilir.
God, forgive us! Don't be afraid; she knows what to do.
= pleading (addressing God) = reassurance
Cehenneme git! Adam gibi yürekli ol!
Go to hell Be brave like a man!
= cursing, swearing = wishing/ challenge
Sanma ki ben her şeyi unuttum. Şunun söylediklerine bak.
Don't think I forgot everything. Can you believe what she is saying!
= warning, challenge = complaining, protesting (addressing the general you)
“Yeter artık! Defol buradan!” “Boş ver(,) ağbi, büyütme,” dedi Serdar.
“Enough already! Just get out of here!” “Why don’t we just forget about it,” said Serdar.
Orhan Pamuk, Sessiz Ev Orhan Pamuk, Sessiz Ev
Idiomatic Conditional Constructions
Short imperatives can be found in several idiomatic conditional constructions: for example, anlat anlatabilirsen and çık çıkabilirsen. The constructions are used to convey the futility of someone’s effort to correct a problematic situation. In English, this could be translated using the imperative construction try + -ing verb:
İntihara meyilli bir ergen kaçırdık diye anlat anlatabilirsen.
Try explaining to a judge that we kidnapped a suicidal teenager.
The variation çık çıkabilirsen can be translated into English as the idiomatic go figure:
Babam bira yapardı; çık çıkabilirsen içinden... İşin içinden çık çıkabilirsen.
My father brewed beer, so go figure... Go figure.
Another conditional construction is structured the other way around and used to convey the speaker’s genuine or affected indifference towards the listener’s potential action:
Kırarsan kır, bana ne. Çalışmazsan çalışma, senin problemin.
Break it if you want. I don’t care. / If you don't want to, don’t work; it’s your problem.
If you break it, it’s on you. I don’t care.
2) Plural or Singular/Plural Polite Form: [siz/-(y)in]
When addressing more than one person, or a single stranger or a superior, the suffix -(y)in is added to the verb stem to soften the tone of the imperative. This is the polite singular and plural form, used in speech and writing:
Görün Görmeyin Yapın Yapmayın
Yiyin Yemeyin Korkun Korkmayı