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I know that if you use ~ないで after a verb it could either mean "without doing ~verb" as 何も見えないで (without seeing anything) or it could mean "don't do ~" as 見つめないで (don't stare at me).

How can know when it is either one meaning or the other?

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    By context. If it's at the end of the sentence, it's not continuous. If it's not at the end of the sentence, it's continuous. – Casey May 24 at 3:25
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    The same principle holds true for positive て by the way. – Casey May 24 at 3:25
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The so-called imperative ~ないで is just an abbreviation of ~ないでくれ/ください, that means the form as such is grammatically nothing different than "without" ~ないで. You can only rely on context.

In oral language, people often put high accent or a slightly upward intonation on the last syllable で when they mean command, but it's optional and not always applicable either. Sometimes you can guess from the common sense that, for example, 何も見えないで is less likely to be imperative because it's rather unusual to command a physical phenomenon to happen or not ("Let nothing be seen!").

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