Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Have A Nice Day

People often complain about being 'ordered' to have a nice day by shop assistants or coffee shop workers or pretty much anyone American.

I'm no grammar nazi but here's the thing. 'Have a nice day' is not an imperative, an order. It's a subjunctive, expressing a hope or wish (it also has other uses).

Other examples of this use of the subjunctive are:

Get well soon
Long Live the King
Live long and prosper
Goodbye (god be with ye)
Hallowed be thy name
(Have a) Happy Birthday
(Have a) Happy Christmas
The old English 'Wassail', a contraction of 'Waes Hail' means 'be healthy', a kind of early version of 'have a nice day'. If/when the NHS falls apart we might want to revive it.

It's harder to spot a subjunctive in English because there is no special verb form to indicate it as there is in other languages. In French, for example, 'hallowed be thy name' is 'que ton nom soit sanctifié' and the soit gives it away.

This may not make it any less annoying the next time someone says 'have a nice day' and you know they don't give a toss but at least now you can be annoyed for the right reasons.


  1. The subjunctive in English is marked by leaving the third person ‘s’ off the Simple Present of a verb after the expression of a wish, or statement of what the speaker sees as desirable, e.g., ‘it is imperative that he come[s] early’. In most cases, you can use a modal verb instead of this very formal construction – ‘he must come early.’ So the only real subjunctives in that selection are these:

    Long Live the King (May the king live a long time)

    God be with ye ('May God be with you‘: Goodbye’ is a fossilized form of that, not a subjunctive any more)

    Hallowed be thy name (May your name be hallowed)

    ‘Have a nice day’ IS an imperative, just as ‘have a biscuit ’and ‘have a look at this’ are imperatives. The subjunctive would be ‘I feel it is important / imperative / desirable / advisable / that she have a nice day’/ that she look at this paper.


  2. What I meant by 'special' was that English doesn't have a unique subjunctive verb form as, for example, French does that makes it easy to spot. I do know how to form it.

    I disagree about 'have a nice day'. It's not the same as 'have a biscuit'. You could say, less elliptically, 'I hope you have a nice day' whereas you wouldn't say 'I hope you have a biscuit' (also for 'may you have a nice day').

    I agree that Goodbye isn't really a subjunctive any more but the intention behind it is.

    You can always use a different construction to avoid as subjunctive, as any language beginner knows.

  3. Sorry, but if it's not subjunctive in form, it's not subjunctive - it can't be subjunctive in intention. 'Have' in 'I hope you have a nice day' is indicative in English, although it would be subjunctive in say, Spanish. Anyway, this is not a blog about linguistics, so I'll shut my trap.

  4. 'Have a Nice Day' pisses me off too. It is artificial and American and it annoys deeply with its obvious and creepy sub-text "I'm a nice person and I work at McDonalds, so please come back for more burgers". The poor bloody waiters have to do as they are trained or they get sacked - they are probably as embarrassed by its meaningless incantation as the rest of us. These sayings are said to set a mood or they implicate that the person saying them is harmless or loyal or is 'in with the crowd' etc - 'Live long and prosper' is either a Trekkie thing or is used ironically (by me) in exceptional circumstances where it is hoped the recipient doesn't really think I'm a closet Trekkie :D