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The same question was answered in German here:
Diese Frage wurde auch hier (auf Deutsch) beantwortet:

Woher stammt die Verwendung des Infinitivs als Ersatz für den Imperativ?


What is the grammatical term for the mood of the following sentences?

  • Betreten auf eigene Gefahr.
  • Vorne einsteigen.
  • Nicht auf den Rasen treten.

They look very much like the formal imperative, and yet all the books I have looked at say that the formal imperative always includes the word Sie. Is this simply a variant of the formal imperative mood, or does it have a special name?

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2 Answers 2

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The grammatical mood used in your examples is simply the infinitive.

Your examples show how infinitive constructs in German can act as imperatives.

Other replacement forms for the imperative can be found in my answer to this question.

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The second and third sentences are examples of what I call the impersonal imperative. It's a feature of German that does not exist in English, but it's still a form of the imperative mood; there's no rule saying that a language has to have just one. It's used when no one in particular is being addressed, so instructions, recipes, signs, etc. It's also frequently used in question form for computer prompts. Grammatically, it's just the infinitive of the verb placed at the end of the sentence where infinitives naturally go.

The first sentence is a bit of an anomaly. My thinking is that it's probably an ellipsis, or a fixed phrase. It is a common phrase though and translates as "Enter at your own risk". One could argue that neither the German or the English is an imperative, more of a warning, though grammatically the English is an imperative in form. (Literally construed, the English version does tell you to enter and assume the risk, even if that wasn't your plan.) In any case, the German version is not technically grammatical according to the usual rules. Either there was a Sie that was dropped, or the verb was moved to the front for emphasis, or Betreten is meant as a noun (entry) and another verb (probably sein) was dropped. However you explain it grammatically, the meaning of the sentence is clear. In German, as in English, the important thing to communicate the message, not to exhibit examples of perfect grammar, and you sometimes have to allow for a bit grammatical rule bending in everyday speech.

PS. Bruce Duncan's grammar site has an explanation of the impersonal imperative which is accessible for learners. He uses the phrase "General directives" so search for that or look for the sign with a plate and silverware. It's also mentioned in the German for English Speakers site where they call it the "infinitive imperative".

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  • You could argue "Enter at your own risk" would be the same form - I guess its hard to proof "enter" really is imperative when it has the same shape as the infinitive.
    – tofro
    Mar 25, 2022 at 10:22
  • I read “Betreten” as a noun like you suggest.
    – Carsten S
    Mar 25, 2022 at 14:33
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    @Carsten S: Good to know. There are similar cases where you can drop "is" in English: "Smoking prohibited", "Hazardous material inside".
    – RDBury
    Mar 25, 2022 at 15:59
  • Those are good examples. It’s impossible to read “Betreten verboten” as an infinitive.
    – Carsten S
    Mar 25, 2022 at 16:43
  • Norwegian as well, something that should translate to slow driving (drive slowly), except that Fahrt / fahrt does match the imperative form (fahret vorsichtig). I might be well mistaken if it means shallow ground or something, because I've only heard it second hand, sorry.
    – vectory
    Mar 25, 2022 at 19:16

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