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Why we don't add an "s" on to the verb in these examples?

John, turn on the light.

Stig, eat your breakfast.

Maya, wait a minute, please.

I learned in school if the verb comes before "he", "she", or "it" we add an "s" on to the verb.

I am looking forward to the answer, and I appreciate your effort.

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    But there are no personal pronouns (he, she, or it) in those examples at all. Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 0:14
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    "s" comes if the predicate is indicative and the subject is in third person. This is not indicative, but imperative.
    – IS4
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 16:26
  • Some say, he's had his morning tea with Captain Ramius in the galley of the Red October. Some say, he eats his cereal with a high-powered, twelve-cylinder mechanical spoon. All we know is he's called the Stig!
    – Jules
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:52

3 Answers 3

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This is called the imperative.

The imperative is used to give an order to someone.

John, turn on the light.

Stig, eat your breakfast.

Maya, wait a minute, please.

With the imperative, you are using what's called the bare infinitive form of a verb. (Source) That is why you do not use the present tense of the verb and add an "s". If you did that, you would have

John turns on the light.

Which means John is doing the action of turning on the light - it does not have the meaning of telling John to turn on the light.

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    Not just orders: "John, have a cookie" is also an imperative. But it would usually not be considered an order.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 7:38
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    It's possible to use the imperative in the third person ("it rubs the lotion on its skin") but very strange indeed (hence the only example I can think of being a fictional psycho-sexual killer). It's not because it's the imperative that there's no s, it's because it's the second person.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 9:08
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    @JonHanna Is that an imperative? Isn't it just indicative mood used with the meaning of an order? Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 14:04
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    @MSalters: Grammatically and semantically, it's still an order. Socially, there's a subtle implication of choice in many circumstances. After all, one may always refuse an order; it's just that the consequences of doing so vary from scenario to scenario ;) Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 14:47
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    If there's a consistent rule, which is always in doubt in English, we can test it by seeing what happens with a verb in which the infinitive differs from the second-person present indicative. Specifically, "to be / you are". The imperative forms are "just be yourself" (common expression), "luck be a lady" (lyric), "everybody be cool" (movie dialogue). These don't remain imperatives with "are" or "is", the imperative mood is using a bare infinitive. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:30
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John, turn on the light.

This is an imperative. You're telling the listener what to do. In imperatives, the subject is generally taken as an implied "you":

John, you turn on the light.

The verb doesn't change form to agree with you, though; in an imperative the verb always appears in its plain form, which is the same form of the verb as the infinitive:

John, you be careful.

As you can see, if we change the verb, we end up with be, not are. So no matter what, it won't have the -s you're asking about on the end.


John isn't the subject, so the verb doesn't change form to agree with it. Instead, John is something called a "vocative"—basically, you're saying his name because you're talking to him. It doesn't have to go at the beginning of the sentence, either:

You turn on the light, John.

The same is true of your other examples:

Stig, you eat your breakfast.
Maya, you wait a minute please.

And again, the names are vocatives and not subjects. We can move them to the end:

You eat your breakfast, Stig.
You wait a minute please, Maya.

And the verb stays the same.

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    The implied you (i.e., 2nd person) is clearer in other languages that conjugate verbs a bit more elaborately than English. For example, Jean, mangez votre repas. Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 9:18
  • I learned it in school with this concept of the implied "you" - I think it simplifies things a lot.
    – hairboat
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 20:56
  • The "implied you" explanation is, I think, unhelpful. As your "be careful" example makes clear, it's just wrong: there is no implied you. The construction uses the infinitive, not the second-person indicative. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 12:06
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    @David Modern English has no indicative mood, nor do we need to call the plain form of the verb "infinitive" when it appears in imperative clauses; doing so is a mistake, as imperatives are distributionally like finite clauses and don't have the semantic characteristics of an infinitive. What's more, the ellipsis analysis is justified by imperatives where it's not ellipted ("Tom, you get down from there right this minute!"), by semantics, and further analyses that won't fit in this comment.
    – user230
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 12:14
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As others have pointed out here your examples use the imperative form of the verb and I'll not add to that.

I think though that what is confusing you is the simple present tense as that is the place that the rule that you are thinking of applies.

I turn on the light

You turn on the light

They turn on the light

He turns on the light

John turns on the light

It turns on the light

The thing to look for in simple present is a singular third person

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  • Indeed. The lesson given at the OP's school was a little imprecise! Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 14:48

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