< Grammar and Mother’s Day 
By John Russell
06 May 2021

Many countries around the world will celebrate Mother's Day on May 9th.

In celebration of the holiday, we will explore what a Mother's Day poem can teach you about English grammar.

You will learn about the imperative mood - a way that English speakers form commands or instructions. You will also learn about negative statements.

Let's begin our report with a few important terms and ideas.

Imperative mood

In English, verbs have different moods. Mood means the speaker's purpose or reason for saying something. It is separate from a verb's tense or place in time - past, present, and so on.

There is the indicative mood - when a speaker makes a statement that expresses an idea or fact. Here is an example:

My name is John.

Notice that the subject of the sentence is "my name." English has an imperative mood – when a speaker makes a statement that gives an order, command or instruction. Such sentences generally do not have subjects. Here is an example:

Finish your homework before you go to bed.

Notice that this statement suggests a subject, "you," but it is missing. Another important word, "will," is missing also.

The imperative mood does not really have a tense. When you remove the word "will," you remove what marks the verb's tense.

In the book "Doing Grammar," Max Morenberg notes that "An imperative is the only English sentence whose main verb is infinitive."

Let's explore imperatives a bit more in a poem by Bruce Lansky. It is called On Mother's Day.

On Mother's Day

Lansky begins his poem with the following words:

On Mother's Day it isn't smart

To give your mom a broken heart.

So here are things you shouldn't say

To dear old mom on Mother's Day

From these lines, you can tell that Lansky is going to use the imperative mood to give a group of instructions.

Lansky writes the following:

Don't tell her that you'll never eat

A carrot, celery, bean, or beet.

Don't tell her you think smoking's cool.

Don't tell her you've dropped out of school.

Notice that Lansky uses the negative form of the imperative three times with the words "don't tell her."

How did Lansky arrive at these exact words? Here is the process by which English speakers make the negative form of the imperative.

You begin with a full statement, such as:

You will not tell her you think smoking is cool.

Then you take out the words "you will."

Add the word "do" before "not," as in:

Do not tell her you think smoking is cool.

Finally, combine the words "do" and "not."

Don't tell her you think smoking is cool.

For those who hope to write one day, Lansky has a humorous final instruction for Mother's Day.

Don't tell her when you're grown you'll be

A starving poet—just like me.

Closing thoughts

You can use what you have learned today to form instructions (or negative commands) in many kinds of situations.

Any time you need to tell people what to do, think about the imperative mood. But be careful about how you use it. For example, you probably do not want to give too many commands or instructions to your boss – or your mother, for that matter.

I'll end this report with a sentence that uses the imperative mood:

Remember to be kind to your mother on Mother's Day.

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

negative – adj. describes a word or statement that means "no" or that expresses a denial or refusal instruction

carrot – n. the long orange root of a plant that is eaten as a vegetable

celery – n. a vegetable that is grown for its long light green stems

bean – n. a seed that is eaten as a vegetable and that comes from any one of many different kinds of climbing plants

beet – n. a garden plant with thick leaves and a rounded red root

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