Whimperative (Sentence Types)

An example of a whimperative.

In English grammar, whimperative is the conversational convention of casting an imperative statement in question or declarative form to communicate a request without causing offense. Also called a wh- imperative or an interrogative directive.

The term whimperative, a blend of whimper and imperative, was coined by linguist Jerrold Sadock in an article published in 1970.

Examples and Observations:

Rosecrans Baldwin: 'Honey,' Rachel said to me, leaning in to cut off the gardener's path to Dana, 'excuse me, but would you mind getting us the check?'

Peter Clemenza, The Godfather: Mikey, why don't you tell that nice girl you love her? 'I love you with all my heart. If I don't see you again soon, I'm a-gonna die.'

Mark Twain, The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton: 'Would you be so kind as to tell me what time it is?'
"The girl blushed again, murmured to herself, 'It's right down cruel of him to ask me!' and then spoke up and answered with admirably counterfeited unconcern, 'Five minutes after eleven.'
"'Oh, thank you! You have to go, now, have you?'"

Terrance Dean, Hiding in Hip Hop: "'Hey, Charles, you okay?' I asked to make sure he remembered he had to take me home.
"'Yeah, I'm cool.'
"'Okay, because I live in the opposite direction.'
"'Yeah, man, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind staying at my spot. I'm really tired and I'm not too far from my house.'"

Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: The polite dinnertime request—what linguists call a whimperative—offers a clue. When you issue a request, you are presupposing that the hearer will comply. But apart from employees or intimates, you can't just boss people around like that. Still, you do want the damn guacamole. The way out of this dilemma is to couch your request as a stupid question ('Can you . . .?'), a pointless rumination ('I was wondering if . . .'), a gross overstatement ('It would be great if you could . . .'), or some other blather that is so incongruous the hearer can't take it at face value. . . . A stealth imperative allows you to do two things at once—communicate your request, and signal your understanding of the relationship.

Anna Wierzbicka, Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: A sentence such as Why don't you play tennis any more? can be a straightforward question. If, however, a sentence in the frame Why don't you refers to a specific (non-habitual) action, and has a future time reference, as in:

Why don't you go and see a doctor tomorrow?

then the sentence cannot simply be a question: it must convey the assumption that it would be a good thing for the addressee to do the thing mentioned. Green (1975:127) has pointed out that the sentence: Why don't you be quiet? is an unambiguous 'whimperative,' whereas the sentence Why aren't you quiet? is an ambiguous question. . . .

"It is particularly interesting to note that, although more tentative than a straight imperative, the Why don't you pattern does not have to be particularly 'polite.' For example, it is perfectly felicitous in curses, such as Why don't you all go to hell! (Hibberd 1974:199). But a curse of this kind—contrasted with the imperative Go to hell!—suggests a somewhat impotent exasperation rather than self-confident anger.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Whimperative (Sentence Types)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/whimperative-sentence-types-1692606. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Whimperative (Sentence Types). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/whimperative-sentence-types-1692606 Nordquist, Richard. "Whimperative (Sentence Types)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/whimperative-sentence-types-1692606 (accessed June 5, 2023).