Definition and Examples of the Optative Mood in English

Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Woman holding sign reading "God Save the Queen"
The fixed phrase "God save the Queen" relies on the present subjunctive to express the optative. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

The optative is a category of grammatical mood that expresses a wish, hope, or desire, as in this meditative blessing:

May you be safe and protected from danger.
May you be happy and peaceful.
May you be healthy and strong.
May you have ease and well-being.

(Jeff Wilson, Mindful America, 2014)

In English grammar, the subjunctive form of the verb is sometimes used in optative expressions, such as "God help us!" As Anderson notes below, "Apart from in idioms there is no morphological expression of optative mood in English."

Examples and Observations

  • "'May the best rat win!' bellowed an inebriated Tretiak, and a dozen large rats began racing on a neon-lit mini-track in Tretiak's private club."
    (Burl Barer, The Saint. Pocket Books, 1997)
  • "Long may you run.
    Long may you run.

    Although these changes
    Have come
    With your chrome heart shining
    In the sun,
    Long may you run."
    (Neil Young, "Long May You Run." Long May You Run, 1976)
  • "Adieu, my dearest friend—may you be happy!—and then your Clarissa cannot be wholly miserable."
    (Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, 1748)
  • "Would that he were gone!"
    (Fairy in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1594 or 1596)
  • "May God bless and keep you always,
    May your wishes all come true,
    May you always do for others
    And let others do for you.
    May you build a ladder to the stars
    And climb on every rung.
    May you stay, forever young."

    (Bob Dylan, "Forever Young." Planet Waves, 1974)

Optative Let

  • "The pragmatic particle let can . . . introduce a wish (the optative mood) as in Let there be light and is used only in formal registers." (Angela Downing and Philip Locke, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)
  • "Let there be peace on earth, And let it begin with me." (Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller, "Let There Be Peace on Earth," 1955)

Optative May

  • "Optative clauses express hopes and wishes . . .. This inverted construction with may generally belong to formal style, though it is also found in various fixed phrases such as May the best man win! or May you be forgiven!" (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • "(I.181) a. May he not regret it! . . . "(I.181) expresses the optative mood also associated with subjunctive idioms such as God save the king! The former construction is not lexicalized or routinized to the extent of the latter, however. The specialized mood interpretation of may is associated with 'inversion.' . . . Apart from in idioms, there is no morphological expression of the optative mood in English.
    "There is, however, a further optative expletion... Would that it would/were to rain. But again this is apparently a dedicated optative form with no corresponding morphological expression. . . . It is the whole expression that expresses the optative mood."
    (John M. Anderson, The Substance of Language: Morphology, Paradigms, and Periphrases. Oxford University Press, 2011)

The Optative Subjunctive in Formulaic Expressions

"One type of irregular sentence contains the optative subjunctive, used to express a wish. The optative subjunctive survives in a few expressions of a fairly fixed type. It is combined with subject-verb inversion in:

Far be it from me to spoil the fun.
So be it.
Suffice it to say we lost.
So help me God.
Long live the Republic.

It is found without inversion in:

God save the Queen!

God {The Lord, Heaven} bless you!
God {The Lord, Heaven} forbid!
God {The Lord, Heaven} help us!

The devil take you.

"A less archaic formula (also with subject-verb inversion) for expressing wishes, usually blessings, is may + subject + predication:

May the best man win!
May you always be happy!
May all your troubles be small!
May you break your neck!"

(Randolph Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of the Optative Mood in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of the Optative Mood in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of the Optative Mood in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).