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I heard in a movie

Nobody touches him!

Shouldn't it be in the imperative form, like "Nobody move!"?

Background: from Brubaker

After Redford's character aggravated the members of the prison board, he is headed for the door. Someone says, "Do you want me to bring him back?" Brubaker (Redford)'s friend/ally yells, "Nobody touches him!"

11 Answers 11

97

This kind of construction is rare in English, but it does occur. It is intended to be stronger than a simple command. If I were to try to explain why, I'd note that

Nobody touch him!

is a command. It is in the imperative, as you noticed. The implication is that you do not want anyone to touch him, and you will act against anyone who tries. This does indeed capture the intent.

We strengthen it with this phrasing

Nobody touches him.

This is now no longer phrased in the imperative. It is now phrased as a statement of fact. A peculiar construction for sure. Obviously it is possible for someone to touch him (all they have to do is reach out and poke him), so how can one make such a statement?

The best way I can describe this is that the speaker is declaring what their "world view" looks like. They are announcing that they are in a world in which nobody touches him. They're not even considering what they might do if someone tries to touch him, because in their world, nobody touches him.

Both phrases act as commands, but they are slightly different. "Nobody touch him," in the imperative, has a sense of "If you try to touch him, I will try to stop you." There's a sense that there are still some rules in place. If you're not the kind of person who would kill, people generally assume you wont kill them if they try to touch him.

"Nobody touches him" is different. By announcing the world view you are using, you are implying "If you try to touch him, I don't know what I will do." You haven't thought it through. People cannot rely on you to be yourself if they touch him. You just might snap and actually kill someone over this. You don't know, and they don't know.

The difference is subtle, and my fellow native English speakers may even disagree slightly on the shades of meaning. However, I find this explanation valuable to myself because it ties closely to the grammar of the phrase itself and works well with similar phrasings. And in the end, the answer to your question is "The movie is right, but you are right also!" The form you recommend, "Nobody move!" is the most typical way of phrasing that command. The form "Nobody touches him!" is a much less common phrasing, but it is still valid.

  • 13
    I think this answer touches on what's really important about this construction: that it isn't a simple imperative at all. – Gregory J. Puleo Jan 26 '18 at 2:36
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    Also, I would say that the "Nobody touches him" construction has an implied "ever" at the end, as in "Nobody touches him ever." It implies a more permanent rule, while "Nobody touch him" is a more temporary injunction. – Arcanist Lupus Jan 26 '18 at 3:11
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    @joiedevivre my use of the word "simple" may have been ill-considered. My point is that the sentence only becomes imperative in context, as compared to a sentence like "Pick up the ball" which is unambiguously imperative, and this seems like a distinction worth highlighting. – Gregory J. Puleo Jan 26 '18 at 14:10
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    (Native speaker here) I don't think there is an implied "ever" at the end, and I definitely don't think "if you touch him, you are nobody" is the same. I think the implied ending is "Nobody touches him, or else (some bad unspecified thing happens)" – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jan 26 '18 at 22:36
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    When you think of it, "Nobody touch him" has a strange kind of negation, logically. Addressing "nobody", you tell them to touch him. In other languages, you would maybe say "Everybody, do not touch him" (or "All, touch him not"). This peculiarity is not present with "Nobody touches him". – Jeppe Stig Nielsen Jan 27 '18 at 13:08
73

"Nobody touches him" also indicates that all the people hearing the order should prevent anyone else from touching him. "Nobody touch him" is just an order not to touch him.

  • 4
    This is a very useful answer in that it explains a sense (that it is wider than the listeners and intended as a broader command) but it is not a complete answer because it misses other points, eg that it is stronger. You could expand it to a perfect answer to accept. – Francis Davey Jan 26 '18 at 15:22
  • I am a native speaker and I disagree with this completely. In my speech, there is no such indication. – Dawood ibn Kareem Jan 31 '18 at 5:51
53

The most common place this kind of conjugation is used is in a scenario like the following:

A robber bursts through the doors of a bank, grabs a young girl, holds a gun to her head, and says:

"Nobody moves, or the girl gets it!"

The key to "deciphering" the strange conjugation is that the robber's statement here is not a command. It's stronger than a command: it's a statement of fact. The robber here is saying "One of these two options will happen, and you cannot change this fact."


"Nobody [does action A], or [unfortunate consequence B]!" is the most common way for this type of conjugation to occur. But, in examples like yours, you may see the second half omitted. This is because either:

  • the speaker wants to leave it up to the imagination of the listeners what the consequence might be
  • the consequence is obvious to anyone looking (for example, the speaker has a gun, or the speaker's hand is hovering over a button marked "self-destruct")
  • 3
    Similar example: phrases like, "Guard this door with your life! No one gets out alive!" Same construction, not a command, but a desired statement of fact. Or "No one gets through this gate!", with implied "without someone catching them". – taz Jan 27 '18 at 8:45
10

I think the key thing being missed here is the nature of the authority being exercised (or being attempted).

Nobody move! is strictly imperative; it is an immediate command, in the nature of a Capitaine des archers du Roi.

Nobody moves is phrased in the continuous present as (as noted) a statement. It is in the nature of the King himself, making the rule, rather than someone implementing the rules, through direct commands to underlings. If spoken so by someone with less authority it might be seen as arrogant, unless they are able to follow it up with a threat (or the girl gets it) – which reduces the gravitas somewhat.

  • 1
    Excellent point about the authority aspect. The continuous present definitely implies the speaker believes they have the authority to make this imperative a reality. – Aerom Xundes Jan 29 '18 at 21:35
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    And ironic that the imperative tense isn't the imperious ... yeah. – Will Crawford Jan 29 '18 at 22:23
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Strictly speaking, you're not wrong.

But it's something of an idiom to take the form:

The rule I am now making is that nobody touches him. I expect you all to abide by this rule.

or:

I require that nobody touches him.

or:

From now on, either nobody touches him or I get cross.

and make it shorter.

Shrug.

(That second example may not actually be completely correct; I have a hunch that if we wanted to be *really* picky, one should say "I require that nobody touch him" but I can't remember and this is close enough to real-world usage.)

  • 1
    Subjunctive touch would indeed be more common in your second example, especially in American English (less so in British English). The indicative sounds absolutely ludicrous to me here, but it’s not uncommon to hear it used in the UK (sadly). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 27 '18 at 14:20
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Not sure I can agree with the "sadly" as (naturally) it sounds perfectly normal to these English ears ;) – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 27 '18 at 21:49
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit “Sadly” from my point of view, that is—I like the subjunctive! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 27 '18 at 21:58
9

Interesting question. No one talks about the third person imperative mood much in English, but it is typically accomplished with a subjunctive conjugation:

Everyone be good.

Or, as you noted:

Nobody touch him.

However, it is quite common in colloquial speech to use a regular indicative conjugation. As long as it sounds like a command, it won't be misinterpreted.

  • 3
    +1. Nobody was here! Am I making myself clear? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 25 '18 at 19:42
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo Oh, good catch. In the past tense, I think it is always regular indicative conjugation. – joiedevivre Jan 25 '18 at 19:50
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    What makes you call it subjunctive, rather than just imperative? Since the subjunctive and the imperative are always morphologically identical in English, there is really no possible way to tell which it is. Occam’s Razor would suggest imperative is probably the easier option to go with (since it basically means we don’t have to worry about subjunctives in matrix clauses). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 27 '18 at 14:11
  • You could say it was a plain-form or infinitive conjugation. I say it's a subjunctive one for a number of reasons, including that the imperative mood is a type of irrealis mood. In addition, we have grammatically archaic idioms like so be it that are usually considered subjunctive, but are quite clearly examples of this same type of imperative. – joiedevivre Jan 27 '18 at 18:37
4

There is a definite difference in these commands, depending of course on the context it was used.

"Nobody touch him!"

Is a direct command of warning given to those present. It is a warning that implies doing so will result in something bad happening. Perhaps pain to the person being touched, or contamination of the person doing the touching, or whatever.

There is no inherent accountability, "or else", to the first person in this command itself, though the way it is said can change that.

For example: Patient enters with an infectious disease, doctor orders "nobody touch him!". Anyone touching him after that is on their own responsibility. Should they do so, and get infected, response from Doctor would be "You are an idiot, I warned you!"

"Nobody touches him!"

Is a different kind of command. It tells those listening that you are putting them in charge of guarding the person and making sure they are not touched by anyone including them. It also implies that should someone touch the person, and they did not prevent it, that they will be held accountable for that. There is a definite, implied, "Or else" to this command.

For Example: Detective at crime scene tells cop regarding dead body "Nobody touches him!". Should Cop touch the body, or allow someone else to, contaminating the scene, Detective will have disciplinary action taken against the Cop!"

If the command is coming from a hoodlum, that punishment is usually lethal, at least in the Movies.

3

I thought "Nobody touches him!" is a partially-stated threat, not an imperative. It gives a concrete expected condition followed by an outcome which is unstated: "Nobody touches him, or I will do something terrible" / "Nobody touches him, or something terrible will happen". (In some cases the person making the statement has previously demonstrated or implied that they possess the means and temperament to do something terrible before this kind of statement, e.g. in a robbery/hostage situation.)

The outcome of the threat is left unspoken for effect; the unknown can be more frightening (or more dramatic) than the known as the audience automatically mentally invents some example for the unstated outcome, and something not stated is less easily refuted. (It is easier to rebut a specific threat than a vague one, although a general demand for more information can come into play: "Nobody touches him, or [else] what?".)

If the purpose of the statement is to strongly convey a desire on the speaker's part that nobody do the action, then the vague threat is not an actual threat, and its being unspecified allows it to bear rhetorical weight without bringing along specific details which would necessarily follow from a specific threat. (E.g. "Would you actually have stabbed one of us for touching him? We're your coworkers, and I thought friends!")

2

A simple, distilled version of the answer:

"Nobody touch him!" is an imperative which gives a negative command.

"Nobody touches him!" is expressing an intended rule, similar to "People without passports don't board the plane.". The rule can, of course, be violated, but the sentence communicates an intent that it be observed.

0

A verb can have a mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive), but also the entire sentence can express a certain speech act: constative or performative (imperative is then considered as a special case of performative). This is a philosophical matter. From grammatical point of view, all these are declarative sentences.

The Stanford Encyclopedia says:

A performative sentence is in the first person, present tense, indicative mood, active voice, that describes its speaker as performing a speech act.

(Although the Encyclopedia gives some examples that do not fit this schema exactly). The idea is that sentences may be expanded to fit this schema.

Nobody touches him!

Is a truncated declarative sentence in a performative speech act in an imperative way. It can be trivially expanded to

I want that nobody touches him.

So, it is just a matter of comfort to expand the sentence

Nobody touch him!

to a performative sentence.

Some paragraphs later, the Stanford Encyclopedia states:

So too, an utterance of a meaningful sentence [...] such as "You'll be more punctual in the future," may leave you wondering whether I am making a prediction or issuing a command or even a threat.

This defines the usage of these sentences quite well.

Think of a restaurant where someone puts on a cigarette, and the waiter says (in a rather rude way):

Nobody smokes here!

This may be understood as a (false) statement, but in this case it is a command.

Again, trivially expanded to:

I want that nobody smokes here.


PS: As a personal side note, I find it quite unnatural to expand "Nobody touch him!" to a performative sentence. But again - this is a personal opinion.

-3

A very concise explanation:

  • "Nobody touches him!" means "he shouldn't be touched - that's my order (in general)" whereupon "touch" is closer to"to harm someone, or use or damage something"
  • "Nobody touch him!" means "don't touch him (at the moment)" whereupon "touch" is closer to "to put the fingers or hand lightly on or against something"

Both the sentences are imperative and both are commands. The former can be used when a person who issues the command doesn't want anyone to harm whoever isn't to be touched - in general. The latter can be used when whoever is not to be touched is close at the moment of speaking and probably infectious.

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    -1 I don't agree that the meaning of 'touch' changes - that's a matter of context. And the phrase in question is not imperative in construction, so we have to explain how it comes to be interpreted as imperative (as Cort Ammon's answer does). – Igid Jan 26 '18 at 11:44

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