Language | WELL SAID

Do this, don't do that: The imperative and prohibitive in Japanese

Mata aō. Tokidoki renraku shiro yo. (Let’s meet again. Keep in touch from time to time.)

Situation 1: Mr. Okubo and his old friend Mr. Yamada, who met for the first time in a while, say goodbye after drinking.

大久保: きょうは楽しかったな。また会おう。ときどき連絡しろよ。

山田: うん。大久保もあんまり無理するなよ。

Ōkubo: Kyō wa tanoshikatta na. Mata aō. Tokidoki renraku shiro yo.

Yamada: Un. Ōkubo mo anmari muri suru na yo.

Okubo: We had a good time today. Let’s meet again. Keep in touch from time to time.

Yamada: Yeah. Don’t work too hard, Okubo.

Today, we will introduce the proper understanding of imperative and prohibitive forms, which are used when you want to exhort someone to do or not do something, respectively. These forms can sound rough and very rude if you use them with superiors or unfamiliar people, or in formal situations, but you may hear them when a male speaker talks to his close friends in a lighthearted way, as in Situation 1. Imperative and prohibitive forms can also be deployed when a male speaker addresses someone lower down the pecking order, e.g., an elder male family member to his junior, a male boss giving instructions to his subordinates or a school sports coach teaching their students. These forms also crop up in quarrels, emergencies or when cheering at sports events, athletes, as you’ll see in the Bonus Dialogue. Example:

火事(かじ)だ! 逃(に)げろ ! (Fire! Get out!)

To make the imperative form for Group 1 (u/go-dan) verbs — e.g., 書(か)く (to write), 飲(の)む (to drink) — replace the last u with e, e.g., 書け, 飲め. As for Group 2(ru/ichi-dan) verbs — e.g., 食(た)べる (to eat), 見(み)る (to look) — replace the last る with ろ, as in 食べろ and 見ろ. When it comes to Group 3(irregular) verbs, する and くる become しろ and こい, respectively. To make the prohibitive form, add な to the verb in dictionary form, as in 書くな, 食べるな or するな. The sentence-ending particle よ is often attached to these forms to soften the tone.

Situation 2: Mr. Mita talks to his colleague Mr. Sere about an order from his boss.

三田: この見積もり、課長に今日中に仕上げろって言われたんだよ。

セレ: それはきびしいなあ。急がなくちゃ。

Mita: Kono mitsumori, kachō ni kyō-jū ni shiagero-tte iwareta-n da yo.

Sere: Sore wa kibishii nā. Isoganakucha.

Mita: My boss told me to finish this estimate within today.

Sere: Ouch, that sounds tough. You’d better hurry.

Imperative/prohibitive form + と言(い)う (someone says)/ 言われる (it is said)/書かれている (it is written) communicates someone’s order, advice or warning in indirect speech. Example:

この海岸(かいがん)ではバーベキューをするなって言われているよ。 (They say we shouldn’t have barbecues on this beach.)

Bonus Dialogue: Mr. Sere and a senior colleague, Mr. Ueno, are walking past a TV screen on the side of a building that’s showing a soccer match.

上野: あ、がんばれ! チャンスだ。走(はし)れ。今(いま)、ここで1点(いってん)入(い)れろ!  おお、よく やった! …出身地(しゅっしんち)のチームが がんばっていると、つい応援(おうえん)しちゃうんだ。

セレ: そうですね。…上野(うえの)さんは学生時代(がく せいじだい)何(なに)かスポーツをされていたんですか。

上野: いや、あまり好(す)きじゃなかったんだよ。体育 (たいいく)の時間(じかん)、のどがかわいても水(みず) を飲むなって先生(せんせい)に言われて、ひどいなあって思(おも)ったんだ。

セレ: ああ、昔(むかし)はそうだったらしいですね。今じゃ、逆(ぎゃく)に飲めって言われますけど。

上野: そういうことがあって、スポーツがあまり好(す)きじゃなくなったんだ。

セレ: 大人(おとな)にいろいろ言われるといやになっちゃいますね。ぼくもゲームは1時間(いちじかん)以上 (いじょう)するなって親(おや)に言われていて、 みんながうらやましかったです。でも、結果的 (けっかてき)にはよかったかもしれません。

Ueno: Come on, hang in there! That’s a chance! Run! Put the ball in the net! Yes, well done! I support my hometown team in spite of myself when they’re doing their best.

Sere: I know how you feel. Did you play any sports when you were a student?

Ueno: No, I didn’t like it much. During our phys ed classes, our teacher told us not to drink water even when we got thirsty. I thought that was terrible.

Sere: Yeah, it seems that was the way things were way back in the day. Nowadays we’re told the exact opposite when it comes to drinking water.

Ueno: Anyway, that was the way it was, and that’s why I came not to like sports so much.

Sere: I didn’t like being told all kinds of stuff by adults either. My parents told me not to play video games for more than an hour at a time, so I was envious of all my friends. Then again, in the long run, maybe it was for the best.