I saw the following statement within the Longman Dictionary:

The Lord bless you and keep you.

But I think it should be like below:

The Lord blesses you and keeps you.

Because The Lord is a single entity. Am I right? If not, why?


5 Answers 5


No, “the Lord bless you” is the subjunctive, indicating that the speaker wishes for the Lord to bless you. Changing it to “blesses” would therefore change the meaning.

Wikipedia explains that this is specifically an example of the unembedded subjunctive, giving other examples:

Subjunctive clauses can occasionally occur unembedded, with the force of a wish or a third person imperative (and such forms can alternatively be analyzed as imperatives). This is commonest nowadays in formulaic remnants of archaic optative constructions, such as "(God) bless you", "God save the Queen", "heaven forbid", "peace be with you" (any of which can instead start with may: "May God bless you", etc.); "long live…"; "truth be told", "so be it", "suffice it to say", "woe betide…", and more.

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    I didn't know the term "unembedded subjunctive", but I wasn't entirely happy calling the cited usage an "imperative" in my earlier comment. Maybe syntactically speaking it is a kind of imperative - but (also unfamiliar to me until I read your answer) optative mood looks like useful terminology here. More power to your elbow!, so to speak (optatively :) Oct 5, 2020 at 16:47
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    Que la lumière soit was one of the first examples of the French present subjunctive that I ever encountered. Oct 5, 2020 at 18:36
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    @MichaelHarvey indeed. It feels natural to translate "God save the queen" to "que dieu sauve la reine", as opposed to "dieu, sauve la reine !", simply because subjunctive is much more widespread in French than in English. Oct 6, 2020 at 2:25
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    I was impressed once when I saw bank robbery in a French movie (maybe Killing Zoe?). One of the robbers waved a gun around at the customers and staff and said "Que personne ne bouge !" Oct 6, 2020 at 5:57
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    You might add that it is indeed, as is grammatically required, third person singular; just not indicative ;-). Oct 7, 2020 at 9:24

The Lord bless you. = May the Lord bless you.

It uses similar grammar as May..., which sounds plural, but just without the word "may".

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    And some ministers do say "May the Lord...". Without the "may" it could be misconstrued as a command to God, which of course is inappropriate. :)
    – Graham
    Oct 6, 2020 at 12:09
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    It's very difficult to see how anyone could misconstrue it in the way Graham suggests. If it were an imperative then it would need to be "bless yourself" or "bless her/him/them/[name]". It is not really the same grammar as "may", since "may" takes a bare infinitive, while "bless" in the original sentence is a subjunctive. "Sounds plural"? I see where you're coming from, but does "go" in "she will go" also sound plural to you?
    – rjpond
    Oct 6, 2020 at 18:41
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    I think this conveys the meaning properly but does not reflect the grammar involved: In "May the Lord bless you", isn't "bless" infinitive? While in the original sentence it is clearly subjunctive. That the two distinct conjugations happen to be identical is a "coincidence". (That is visible in my native German: "Möge Er dich segnen" ("segnen" is infinitve) vs. "Er segne Dich" (3rd person singular subjunctive present tense). Oct 7, 2020 at 9:26
  • I'm just keeping this simple, so it can be easily understood, but I'll change "the same grammar" to "similar grammar". Oct 7, 2020 at 15:23

The most likely source for the original quotation is one of the English translations of the Old Testament, and the most likely source for that is one of the Latin translations of the Old Testament. So for instance in the Vulgate this appears as "benedicat tibi Dominus et custodiat te," and that is a Latin hortatory subjunctive. It "encourages" someone (in this case, Dominus, otherwise known as Adonai, YHWH, or Lord) to do something. It can be used in the first person "let's do something," the second person "I hope you will do something," or third person, "may he she or it do something" in Latin.

English has a similar subjunctive, and the translators chose it here to represent the Latin, which in turn represented the Hebrew original. In modern English, the subjunctive is not used as often. It's not always obvious in modern English: in many verbs, the only difference from the indicative mood is that the singular subjunctive forms look like the plural indicative forms. That's what's happening here.

Hebrew is not an Indo-European language and it never had a subjunctive mood, so the original passage in Numbers did not have exactly this form. Translators chose to use this form to represent it, both in Latin (the Vulgate) and in this case in English, possibly influenced by a Latin text.

Some Indo-European languages have another mood, the optative. In Greek, the example I know best, this might have been translated with the optative mood. In Latin and the Germanic languages (including Old English), the optative disappeared and most of its functions were taken over by the subjunctive before any of those languages were written down.

I hope this background helps. If it is any comfort, in my experience not many native speakers of English understand how the English subjunctive works. Many of us can use it without understanding it.

I can recommend Goldman, English Grammar for Students of Latin for more on the verb systems of those to languages, and I learned Old English from Mitchell and Robinson, A Guide to Old English. For Latin I can recommend Allen and Greenough, New Latin Grammar, Bennet, New Latin Grammar, (which were "new" in the late 1800s) and Woodcock, A New Latin Syntax (1959).

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    Astonishingly helpful answer! Thank you for putting in the time to write such a great answer and welcome to ELL!
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 7, 2020 at 22:23

It is a subjunctive like 'May the Lord bless you', but the omission of 'may' is intended to reflect the stronger sense of the Hebrew imperative behind the English translation. As an imperative, it is more of a request or even demand than the mere wish that 'may' would suggest.

The phrase is from English translations of the Old Testament (Numbers 6:24 to be precise), and its usage in modern times should be traced to William Tyndale's 1530 Pentateuch which was translated directly from the original Hebrew. The King James Version adopted the same wording as Tyndale in most places.

This kind of subjunctive has been used in translating both Hebrew and Greek imperatival senses into English. In both languages the source construct can have a sense stronger than a mere wish (which would be rendered in English "may he bless") but closer to a request or even demand, expressed in the third person. Another well-known example of this is the Lord's Prayer: "Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done" -- all third person imperatives in Greek.


Because it is the imperative form. When you give a comandand, the third person does not work as it would in other tenses. For example, you can say, "Be quiet!" "Everybody, come here!" In the subjunctive, we have the same case. I pray that he not be angry. I prayed that she go early.

  • You're right to mention the subjunctive, but this isn't an imperative, as you seem to suggest. See the other answers.
    – CDR
    Nov 2, 2023 at 18:07
  • Incorrect. Issuing an imperative to God himself is blasphemy. In times gone by it would have got you burnt at the stake.
    – Chenmunka
    Nov 2, 2023 at 18:56
  • "May the Lord bless" is an imperative form. When you say it, you are not giving a comand to God. Rather, it is your wish that He May bless another person.
    – Xavier 1
    Nov 8, 2023 at 19:57

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