Formal Commands in Spanish: Using usted in the imperative mood
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Using the right level of politeness is one of the fundamentals in the Spanish language, so learners generally start off with a pretty good understanding of when to use tú vs usted for addressing someone. But how does this apply to giving informal or formal commands in Spanish? Yes, there is an etiquette depending on who you’re addressing!
As you may know, commands in Spanish are given using the imperative mood. Whereas in English you give the same commands without considering formality, in the Spanish imperative we have multiple forms to reflect each different Spanish word for you. In today’s post we’ll focus on the usted commands, which are our formal Spanish commands.
We’ll start out by clarifying exactly what we mean by usted commands, considering both the singular and plural forms of this Spanish you. We’ll go through the regular imperative conjugation patterns for both usted and ustedes, starting with affirmative formal commands and then looking at negative formal commands in Spanish.
We’ll round out the post with a clear explanation on proper sentence structure with object pronouns, again for both affirmative and negative formal commands. As always, we’ll include plenty of examples to demonstrate each case, while providing links to our other posts where we offer related Spanish grammar lessons.
Now let’s get started with our lesson on giving formal commands in Spanish!
A quick review of informal vs formal You in Spanish
Before we go too deep into Spanish formal commands themselves, let’s just make sure we’re clear on what we’re referring to with our levels of formality. We’ll keep this brief, since we already have in-depth lessons on tú vs usted, and on all the different forms of you in Spanish.
Tú is the singular informal, familiar form of addressing someone, typically used with friends, family, or people of a similar age.
Usted, on the other hand, is the singular formal form of address, used to show respect and politeness, and is appropriate in professional or unfamiliar settings. This formal Spanish you is used in both Spain and Latin America.
In Spain there’s a plural form of you that corresponds to tú: vosotros / vosotras. This informal familiar form of address is not used in Latin America.
For addressing multiple people formally, we use the plural form: ustedes. This is the formal plural you in both Spain and Latin America, so in this post we’ll cover plural formal commands that correspond to ustedes.
Note that there’s no familiar plural you in Latin America, so ustedes commands can be used both formally and informally. In Spain, ustedes commands are always used formally. Singular usted commands are considered formal in both regions.
Imperative conjugation in Spanish
Now that we know which forms of you we’d use to give formal commands in Spanish, let’s move on to imperative conjugation with usted and ustedes. For lessons on how to use the imperative with tú or nosotros, check out our posts on informal tú commands and nosotros commands. We even have a couple of specialized posts: commands for teachers and babysitters, and Spanish dog commands.
Formal commands in Spanish are categorized into affirmative and negative commands. Unlike for tú commands, where the conjugation differs between affirmative and negative, for formal commands in Spanish we use the same conjugation in both the affirmative and the negative. The sentence structure nonetheless differs between the two, particularly with respect to object pronouns, so we’ll take a look at those rules once we’ve covered the rules for imperative conjugation.
Affirmative formal commands: Spanish examples
Formal Spanish imperative conjugation is relatively straightforward, because it uses the exact same conjugation as the present subjunctive. This is also the case for nosotros commands, as well as for most affirmative (but not negative) tú commands.
Remember that we omit the subject pronoun when giving orders in Spanish, just like you do in English. We just give the order itself, conjugated to the correct grammatical person we’re addressing.
For the singular usted, the imperative conjugation is the same as the third-person singular usted conjugation in the present subjunctive. Let’s review the regular endings for usted commands using hablar, leer, and abrir as our typical -ar, -er, and -ir verbs.
|Regular verbs||Usted imperative ending||Spanish example|
- Por favor, hable sobre sus viajes, Sr. Domingo. A todos nos gusta oír sobre sus aventuras. – Please talk about your travels, Mr. Domingo. We all like to hear about your adventures.
- Lea el documento en voz alta, señor. – Read the document aloud, Sir.
- Abra la ventana del pasillo si hace mucho calor. – Open the hall window if it’s too hot.
For the plural ustedes commands, the principle is the same, as it also follows the conjugation of ustedes in the present subjunctive. Let’s review these ustedes endings for the same typical verbs.
|Regular verbs||Ustedes imperative ending||Spanish example|
- Hablen suavemente, por favor. Estamos en la biblioteca. – Speak softly, please. We are in the library.
- Señoritas, lean bien las preguntas del examen antes de responder. – Ladies, please read the test questions carefully before answering.
- Abran los sobres que están en sus escritorios, saquen el examen y lean con cuidado. – Open the envelopes on your desks, take out the test, and read it carefully.
Negative formal commands: Spanish examples
Negative usted commands are conjugated exactly the same way. The only difference here is that the verb is preceded by the negation no. Here we’ll use viajar, vender, and escribir as our typical -ar, -er, and -ir verbs.
|Regular verbs||Usted imperative ending||Spanish example|
|-ar verbs||-e||no viaje|
|-er verbs||-a||no venda|
|-ir verbs||-a||no escriba|
- Está lloviendo a cántaros, no viaje hasta que no escampe. – It’s raining cats and dogs, don’t travel until it stops raining.
- No venda el auto todavía, Sr. David. Un amigo puede darle más por él. – Don’t sell the car yet, Mr. David. A friend can give you more for it.
- No escriba su nombre completo en la misma línea, use una para el nombre y otra para el apellido. – Don’t write your full name on the same line, use one for the first name and one for the last name.
The same conjugations apply for negative plural ustedes commands as we saw above. We just add no before the conjugated verb.
|Regular verbs||Ustedes imperative ending||Spanish example|
|-ar verbs||-en||no viajen|
|-er verbs||-an||no vendan|
|-ir verbs||-an||no escriban|
- No viajen en temporada alta si no quieren gastar un montón de dinero. – Don’t travel in peak season if you don’t want to spend a lot of money.
- No vendan lo que está en la caja amarilla en la venta de garaje. – Don’t sell what’s in the yellow box at the garage sale.
- No escriban con marcador permanente en la pizarra. – Don’t write with a permanent marker on the blackboard.
Imperative sentence structure with object pronouns
The use of object pronouns with formal Spanish commands is essential for clarity and politeness. Pronoun placement in the sentence differs depending on whether we’re giving an affirmative or a negative command.
Before we move on to sentence structure, let’s just review the various object pronouns we need to consider here. We include reflexive pronouns here as well, since the same sentence placement rules apply.
|Spanish subject pronouns||Spanish direct object pronouns||Spanish indirect object pronouns||Spanish reflexive pronouns|
|él, ella, usted||lo, la||le (se)||se|
|ellos, ellas||los, las||les (se)||se|
As a general rule, when a verb requires both an indirect object pronoun and a direct object pronoun, they are written one after the other in that order.
To avoid awkward combinations, le and les are replaced with se when they appear before a direct object pronoun that also starts with l. Keep in mind that se in this context still functions as an indirect object pronoun.
Affirmative formal commands + object pronouns
In affirmative formal commands, pronouns are attached directly to the end of the conjugated verb. In cases where the verb takes two object pronouns, they are both attached together.
When adding object pronouns to the end of the verb like this, we usually add an accent mark to preserve the pronunciation. To know where to put the accent, we need to know which is the stressed syllable of the conjugated verb before adding the pronouns.
For example, comprar conjugated in the imperative for usted is compre, with the stressed syllable being /com/. When adding one or two object pronouns, that syllable requires an accent mark to preserve its pronunciation.
In this section’s examples showing object pronouns, we’ll continue to put the command in bold, while we’ll put the object pronouns in italics.
- Si de verdad quiere quedarse con esta casa, cómprela lo antes posible. Hay muchos interesados en ella. – If you really want to keep this house, buy it as soon as possible. There are many interested in it.
- Este es el contrato, léalo y fírmelo antes del viernes. – This is the contract, read it and sign it before Friday.
- Los gatitos están jugando, ¡mírenlos! Son tan lindos. – The kittens are playing, look at them! They are so cute.
- Las ventanas están cerradas, ábranlas, por favor. – The windows are closed, please open them.
- Por favor, pídale diez minutos más al cliente, estoy a punto de llegar. – Please ask [him] the client for ten more minutes, I’m about to arrive.
- Señor juez, dígales a los detenidos de qué se les acusa. – Your Honor, tell [them] the detainees what they are charged with.
- Báñense con agua tibia para que no se resfríen. – Bathe yourselves with warm water so you don’t catch colds.
So far in these affirmative formal commands Spanish examples, we’ve just attached a single object pronoun. The same sentence structure applies when the conjugated verb takes both an indirect and a direct object pronoun. Just remember the rule we saw above, that if the indirect object is le or les, it becomes se.
- ¿Necesita ver los documentos, doctor? Pídaselos a la secretaria y ella se los entregará. – Do you need to see the documents, doctor? Ask [her] the secretary for them and she will give them to you.
- Ese pastel es para ustedes, llévenselo. – That cake is for you guys, take it with you.
- El profesor dejó su calculadora. Entréguesela mañana, por favor. – The professor left his calculator. Please give it to him tomorrow.
- ¡Qué bonitas flores! Regaléselas a su esposa, seguro le encantarán. – Such pretty flowers! Give them to [her] your wife, I’m sure she’ll love them.
- Necesito usar su bolígrafo, préstemelo, por favor. – I need to use your pen, please lend it to me.
- Disculpe, Director, ¿ya tiene las notas actualizadas? Dénoslas para registrarlas. – Excuse me, Headmaster, do you have the updated notes? Give them to us to register them.
You may have noticed that in some of our examples we included both an indirect object pronoun and the indirect object itself, always preceded by the preposition a. The indirect object pronoun doesn’t translate into English in these cases, but in Spanish this doubling is normal. We cover this phenomenon in our post on the personal a in Spanish.
Negative formal commands + object pronouns
The sentence structure is different in negative formal commands. Here the reflexive, direct object, or indirect object pronouns are positioned between the negation and the conjugated verb. The pronouns are written out separately, and no additional accent is added to the conjugated verb.
In these examples, we’ll continue to bold the negative commands while showing the object pronouns in italics.
- Creo ese vestido no es lo suficientemente formal, no lo lleve. – I don’t think that dress is formal enough, don’t wear it.
- La señorita Alma está ocupada en este momento, no la llame, por favor. – Miss Alma is busy at the moment, please do not call her.
- Los zapatos ya están limpios, no los pula más, no es necesario. – The shoes are already clean, do not polish them anymore, it is not necessary.
- Las cajas estarán selladas hasta la graduación, no las abra hasta entonces. – The boxes will be sealed until graduation, do not open them until then.
- No les hable a los niños mientras hacen el examen. – Do not talk to [them] the children while they are taking the test.
- No les pague hasta que terminen el trabajo. – Do not pay them until they finish the work.
When both direct and indirect object pronouns are used with negative formal commands, the rule for changing the indirect object pronoun to se still applies to replace le or les before a direct object pronoun, even when they’re written as separate words.
- Les contaré un secreto, pero no se lo digan a nadie. – I’ll tell you guys a secret, but don’t tell it to anyone.
- Esta libreta tiene toda la información que necesita, no se la dé a cualquiera. – This notebook has all the information you need, don’t give it to just anyone.
- ¿El cónsul le envió regalos? No se los acepte, los regalos del cónsul tienen mala fama. – The consul sent you gifts? Don’t accept them from him, the consul’s gifts have a bad reputation.
- Usamos estas pegatinas para identificar el casillero, no se las quiten. – We use these stickers to identify the locker, don’t take them off of it.
- No quiero pensar en eso, así que no me lo recuerde. – I don’t want to think about it, so don’t remind me of it.
- ¿Esta es su camioneta? No nos la deje, es demasiada responsabilidad. – Is this your truck? Don’t leave it with us, it’s too much responsibility.
Conclusion: Formal commands in Spanish
Understanding and correctly using formal commands in Spanish is vital for effective communication, and for showing respect in various social and professional settings.
Today we covered Spanish formal commands from every angle. We started with a review of the different forms of you in Spanish, concluding that we’d focus on usted and ustedes commands for the rest of the post.
Then we got into our section on formal imperative conjugation in Spanish. We learned that we use the same conjugations for both affirmative and negative formal commands, and that these are the same usted and ustedes conjugations as in the present subjunctive tense.
Finally, we learned about sentence structure when forming Spanish usted commands, namely with respect to object pronoun placement. We saw how object pronouns are attached directly to the end of the conjugated verb for affirmative commands, frequently triggering the addition of an accent mark to preserve the pronunciation. For negative commands, the object pronouns are written out individually, and placed between the negation no and the conjugated command.
By mastering the art of formal commands in Spanish and object pronoun usage, you’ll not only enhance your linguistic skills but also navigate Spanish-speaking cultures with respect and sophistication. So, whether you’re addressing your boss, a boardroom, or anyone else deserving of formal etiquette, you’re now well-equipped to express yourself effectively and courteously using formal commands in Spanish!