I was having a debate about whether an authority stating a permission constitutes a command. For example, say the captain of a military unit tells his subordinates, "You may sign up for a new wilderness survival course", but it is clear that this is optional. Does that constitute a command?

I understand that the verb 'to command' means 'to have or exercise authority', and that the captain in my example is exercising authority in this situation, but there is a different between the verb form and the noun 'command'. In my understanding, a command is an order or directive (a requirement), while someone stating an option or permission, even to subordinates from a position of authority, is not a command (in the noun sense). Which do you think is correct?

  • 1
    If it's clear that it's optional, then it's not a command. Sometimes a command is rhetorically states as a request or permission, but context makes it clear that it's a requirement, so it's actually a command.
    – Barmar
    Feb 10, 2023 at 0:42
  • 1
    Permission: You may sign up for a new wilderness survival course. Command: You must sign up for a new wilderness survival course. Command: You must consider signing up for a new wilderness survival course. Feb 10, 2023 at 4:14
  • How can a permission be a command? You either give someone permission to do something or you give them a command [military] to do something. The terms are antithetical.
    – Lambie
    Feb 10, 2023 at 18:37
  • You provide a definition of the verb but not of the noun, which is what you're actually asking about. What did you find when you looked up the definition of the noun? Feb 10, 2023 at 23:33
  • As I noted in my original post, "In my understanding, a command is an order or directive (a requirement)", which is similar to Miriam-Webster's definition ("an order given"). I'm asking here because (1) I know that language changes and is fluid and doesn't always or necessarily conform to what is in the dictionary (prescriptivism versus descriptivism), and (2) perhaps I was missing a nuance or detail that wasn't obvious from checking the dictionary.
    – keet
    Feb 11, 2023 at 20:43

3 Answers 3


You're using the wrong definition of "command". The one we use when deciding whether a sentence is a command is (from M-W):

an order given

An order is an instruction the recipient is required or expected to carry out.

The definition you chose is used when we say that someone is in command, it means they have the authority to give orders. Of course, not everything they say will be an order, they have to make it clear which ones are commands.

  • Thanks. Actually, I did use the correct definition of "a command" (as a noun), as I explained in my second paragraph. It was the person I was debating with who used the incorrect meaning.
    – keet
    Feb 10, 2023 at 2:46

No, a command is mandatory.

mandatory word origin (OL&G)

late 15th century: from late Latin mandatorius, from Latin mandatum ‘something commanded’


If you were debating this, I suspect one party to the debate was not thinking about correct English, but real psychology and politeness (nd wasn't on board with "clearly optional"). We often use communication that literally means one thing but is understood to mean something quite different.

"Won't you stay to dinner?" sometimes means "It's time to eat so will you please go away." It is literally an invitation, but is understood to be the opposite.

"I'm sorry, I can't" often means "I don't want to."

"Nice dress" often means "Your dress is unattractive."

One problem in communication is that sometimes these statements really do mean what their words say. But if they didn't, the polite evasions wouldn't work. But in a military environment, no underling would dare understand "You may leave the bridge" as "I'm OK with you leaving." It means "Get out."

In the OP's case, "You may sign up" may mean "You may" or it may mean "Do it." If it's optional, it doesn't mean "Do it," so it's not a command. But in a military environment, a CO's invitations are not to be ignored unless he makes it abundantly clear they can.

  • Thank you, I did wonder while typing the question whether someone might read into the military context that while it was literally stated as a permission, it might in context be intended as a command. That was why I included as part of the question that it was clear that the activity was optional. Of course, if the military context were not merely part of a fabricated example on my part, I could very well be claiming incorrectly that "it [was] clear that [signing up for wilderness survival training was] optional" in an attempt to avoid responsibility or punishment, but that is not the case.
    – keet
    Feb 11, 2023 at 20:56

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