What Is 'You' Understood in English Grammar?

In English grammar, "you" understood is the implied subject in most imperative sentences in the language. In other words, in sentences that convey requests and commands, the subject is almost always the personal pronoun you, even though it's often not expressed.

Examples and Observations

In the examples below, "you" understood is indicated by square brackets: [].

  • "As soon as she was on the sidewalk Mick caught her by the arm. 'You go right home, Baby Wilson. [] Go on, now!'"
    (Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Houghton Mifflin, 1940)
  • "I don't care if she's a murderer! [] Leave her alone! [] Get out of here and [] leave her alone! All of you! [] Get out of here!"
    (Bethany Wiggins, Shifting. Bloomsbury, 2011)
  • "'You're not from around here,' I say.
    "'[] Leave me alone.'
    "'You're from somewhere else. From Europe'
    "'You're disturbing me. I'd appreciate it if you would stop pestering me.'"
    (Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968)
  • "Mrs. Bloxby sighed. 'Would you please leave, Mrs. Benson, and in future, would you telephone first? I am very busy. Please [] shut the door on your way out.'
    "'Well, I never!'
    "'Then it's time you did. Goodbye!'"
    (M.C. Beaton [Marion Chesney], As the Pig Turns. St. Martin's Press, 2011)

You-Understood in Transformational Grammar

"Imperative sentences differ from others in that they lack subject noun phrases:

  • Be quiet!
  • Stand up!
  • Go to your room!
  • Do not smoke!

Traditional grammar accounts for such sentences by claiming that the subject is 'you understood.' Transformational analysis supports this position:

"The evidence for 'you' as the subject of imperative sentences involves the derivation of reflexives. In reflexive sentences, the reflexive NP must be identical with the subject NP:

  • Bob shaved Bob.
  • Mary dressed Mary.
  • Bob and Mary hurt Bob and Mary.

The reflexive transformation substitutes the appropriate reflexive pronoun for the repeated noun phrase:

  • Bob shaved himself.
  • Mary dressed herself.
  • Bob and Mary hurt themselves.

Let us look at the reflexive pronoun that appears in imperative sentences:

  • Shave yourself!
  • Dress yourself!

Any reflexive pronoun other than 'yourself' results in an ungrammatical sentence:

  • *Shave himself!
  • *Dress herself!

This fact provides evidence for the existence of 'you' as the deep structure subject of imperative sentences. 'You' is deleted by means of the imperative transformation, which is triggered by the Imp marker." (Diane Bornstein, An Introduction to Transformational Grammar. University Press of America, 1984)

Implied Subjects and Tag Questions

"Some imperatives appear to have a third person subject as in the following:

  • Somebody, strike a light! (AUS#47:24)

Even in a sentence like this one, though, there is an understood second person subject; in other words, the implied subject is somebody among you all out there. Again, this becomes clearer when we tack on a question tag--suddenly the second person subject pronoun surfaces:

  • Somebody, strike a light, will you? (AUS#47:24)

In an example like this, it is quite clear that we are not dealing with a declarative, since the verb form would then be different: somebody strikes a light." (Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge, Introducing English Grammar, 2nd ed. Hodder, 2010)

Pragmatics: Alternatives to the Plain Imperative

"If we have the feeling that a direct speech act might be perceived as a face threat by the hearer, there is quite a range of implicit directives, which are indirect speech acts . . . from which we might select something appropriate and less threatening to the other's face.

  • (28a) Shut the door.
  • (28b) Can you shut the door, please?
  • (28c) Will you shut the door, please?
  • (28d) Would/could you please shut the door?
  • (28e) Let's shut the door, shall we?
  • (28f) There's a draught in here.

. . . [I]n Anglo culture there are scripts blocking the imperative (28a) and prescribing the interrogative (28 b, c, d). Though it may be perfectly acceptable among friends, the use of the imperative in (28a) is not appropriate when the speaker and hearer do not know each other well or when the hearer is of a higher social status or has power over the speaker. The use of the imperative as in Shut the door has the strongest impact on the hearer, but it is normally not used." (René Dirven and Marjolijn Verspoor, Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics, 2nd ed. John Benjamins, 2004)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is 'You' Understood in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/you-understood-grammar-1692618. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is 'You' Understood in English Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/you-understood-grammar-1692618 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is 'You' Understood in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/you-understood-grammar-1692618 (accessed June 8, 2023).