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Interpreting imperatives by Magdalena Kaufmann (review)

From: Language
Volume 89, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 184-186 | 10.1353/lan.2013.0007

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Magdalena Kaufmann starts this book by identifying three problems regarding the meaning of imperatives. First, clause types are pairs of form types and function types, and for imperative-sentence form types, ORDER is the prototypical function. Second, the imperatives of a given language are generally associated with a range of speech act types, including COMMAND, WARNING, PROHIBITION, WISH, REQUEST, ADVICE, and PERMISSION. And in many languages, they can also function on a sub-speech-act level, having a similar function to the antecedent of conditionals. Third, imperatives in many languages are associated with functions that are tied to universal quantification (COMMAND, ORDER, REQUEST, WISH) as well as functions that are tied to existential quantification (PERMISSION, CONCESSION). The goal of the book is to present a proposal for the semantics of the imperative clause type that can account for these three problems.

In Chs. 2 and 3, K argues that imperatives express propositions and therefore have truth values, 'but come with an additional presuppositional meaning component that makes them unfit for assertive use and shield the truth value from being conversationally accessible' (57). K makes a plausible connection between imperatives such as Close the door! and performative modal declaratives such as You must/should close the door!, and proposes that semantically, the two are equivalent. As supporting evidence that imperatives are not that different from declaratives, K notes that imperatives answer questions (Q: Should I go to the reception? A: Don't go!), just as declaratives do (Q: Is it raining? A: Yes, it is raining.); just as one can lie with a declarative, one can make the addressee believe something that is known to the speaker to be incorrect with an imperative (saying To go to Harlem, take the B train! when the speaker knows that going to Harlem requires taking the A train); and just as a declarative can be turned into a question, an imperative can be turned into a question in some languages (in German, a rhetorical WH-question such as Where is it that you should put the flower pot? can be formed with an imperative verb). As far as I can tell, these are novel observations about the connection between imperatives and declaratives and provide strong support for the position that the semantic type of imperatives is propositional rather than property-like (cf. Portner 2007). Adopting Kratzer's (1981) approach to the semantics of modality, K proposes that imperatives contain a necessity modal operator with two conversational background arguments—a modal base f and an ordering source g—and a temporal argument that defines the interval at which the event/state expressed by the imperative is required to hold. An imperative θ! is thus interpreted as a function that maps a world w to the truth value 1 if θ is true in all worlds returned by f and g in the defined interval.

What f and g of the imperative modal operator look like is discussed in Ch. 4. For typical imperatives that express orders, commands, and requests, K proposes that f is what the speaker and hearer jointly take to be possible future courses of events, the common ground, and g is what the speaker orders. An imperative such as Get up! means 'According to what I order you to do, it is necessary that you get up now'. For imperatives expressing wishes such as Enjoy the film, g is proposed to be what the speaker wants with f as the common ground. The presuppositional meaning component of imperatives is also discussed in this chapter. K proposes that this component consists of three presuppositions, which are termed as epistemic authority, ordering source restriction, and epistemic uncertainty. According to the epistemic authority constraint, imperatives must combine with conversational backgrounds on which the speaker has epistemic authority. By definition, a speaker has epistemic authority on the common ground, f, and also on what she orders or what she wants. The epistemic uncertainty constraint requires that the speaker believe that the content of the imperative is possible but not necessary. If the speaker is sure that θ will happen or will not happen, then issuing an imperative θ! is infelicitous (#I know you won't go to confession. So go...

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