I started learning Spanish over 11 years ago and I’m not too bad at it now, but I have to admit but one of the aspects I still find hella difficult is the imperatives – the “do this, don’t do that” form.

In English, imperatives are easy: you just use the bare infinitive (e.g. be, go, do), regardless of whether you’re talking to your best friend or your grouchy boss. (I mean, there are pragmatic reasons why you often wouldn’t use the imperative and instead employ a construction like, “could you please…” but that’s the same in Spanish as well anyway.) If you want to make it negative, just add “don’t” to the start (e.g. don’t be, don’t go, don’t do). If you’re including yourself as one of the people who should follow the imperative, you use “let’s” (e.g. let’s be, let’s go, let’s do). If you’re including yourself and it’s negative, then use “let’s not” (e.g. let’s not be, let’s not go, let’s not do). Easy peasy.

In Spanish, it is not easy peasy. For a start, you have to consider who you’re issuing the imperative to (tú, vos, usted, ustedes, vosotros). If it’s someone you’re familiar with, or a peer, or in Spain nearly anyone, you use the form, which is usually the same as the third-person singular present (e.g. mira, come, miente) except with a whole bunch of exceptions (haz, ven, di, pon, sal, etc.). And then if you’re telling them not to do something you don’t use that form at all, but the second-person singular subjunctive (e.g. no mires, no hagas, no digas). Object pronouns go after the verb if positive (e.g. mírame, cómelo) and before if negative (e.g. no me mires, no lo comas).

And then, if you travel to a country like Argentina, you at least need to recognise the imperatives for vos, which are formed by dropping the -r off the infinitive and stressing the last syllable, e.g. mirá, hacé, decí. The only irregularity is for ir, where you say andá, because otherwise you’d have to say í which is too short and easily missed. Normatively the negative imperatives are the same as for , e.g. no mires, but sometimes you hear a different form with a stress pattern like the other vos forms, like no mirés, no hagás, no mintás. Argentina is another country where barely anyone is usted so being able to recognise vos verb forms is really critical, haha.

If the command is to usted or ustedes, then you use the subjunctive present form, e.g. haga, diga, mire, mienta or hagan, digan, miren, mientan. At least this way the form is the same whether it’s positive or negative, I guess, but the object pronouns still go after or before depending on whether it’s positive or negative, respectively. So like, háganlo, dígaselo but no me mienta, no me miren.

But then the worst is when you’re giving instructions to vosotros. Even though these forms are actually very regular, I still hate them so much that I feel like Latin America made the correct choice to drop the whole pronoun. Because for vosotros imperatives, the verb itself changes depending on what object pronouns go with it, and there’s also a whole thing where what the RAE says is correct is not what people actually say.

If the verb is not reflexive, the “correct” form ends in -d, e.g. mirad, lavad, comed. But actually most Spanish people don’t even use this form, they end the verbs in -r (so they basically just use the infinitive), e.g. mirar, lavar, comer. (At my university they taught us “end in -d if there are no object pronouns and end in -r if there’s an object pronoun that isn’t os”, which is even more confusing than the real situation.) However if the verb is reflexive, with an object pronoun of os, then you drop the final letter entirely and get forms like miraos, lavaos, comeos. These don’t even look like verbs!! Every time I came across one in Harry Potter I would be like ?????. Oh yeah, and then there’s also one exception, which is that if the verb is irse then you don’t drop the -d or -r, i.e. you say idos or iros not íos.

And, of course, like with you revert to using the subjunctive form if you want to issue a negative command, like no lo miréis, no lo comáis, etc.

I think one of the reasons I find the imperatives so tricky is that not only are they a lot more complicated than English, but I also don’t get a lot of practice with them. At home I only really get to speak Spanish with my cat, and honestly… you try telling a cat what to do 😅 (And even then, I mean, I do try, but “¡¡¡COME LO QUE YA ESTÁ EN TU CUENCO!!!” is not exactly wide-ranging, variegated practice.) And then when I’m actually travelling and need to speak Spanish, I don’t want to be rude and boss people around like a dickhead! Just like in English, I’m waaaaaaaay more likely to say something like, “¿Podrías darme [esa cosa], por favor?” (“Could you give me [that thing], please?") rather than just, “¡Dámelo!” (“Give me that!") But it does mean that on the rare occasion it is appropriate to use an imperative I really need to mentally rehearse to make sure I have it right 😅