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I heard it many times but I haven't really pondered on that. We can hear these following sentences in our daily lives:

  1. May God bless you.
  2. May God be pleased with you.
  3. May God accept your prayers.

But why do we use "May" at the beginning of the sentence? Apparently, it doesn't make the sentence a question but more polite and respectful towards the God maybe? I cannot tell I heard this structure in any other sentence but religious ones. Which grammar rule does it belong to? And how do we use it in different forms?

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1  
Should the word "be" be in the third example? –  American Luke Aug 1 '12 at 17:06
3  
May the Force be with you. –  Alfredo Osorio Aug 1 '12 at 20:07
    
May I come in? –  Noah Oct 4 '12 at 4:27

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

See meaning 4 of may at dictionary.com

(used to express wish or prayer): May you live to an old age.

It follows the same grammatical pattern as let (and is almost a synonym).

Let their children grow up happy!

May their children grow up happy!

The usage of may in this sense is not restricted to prayers, although one could say that it's formal, if not pompous, in modern usage.

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To answer the second part of the question, we might add that the "May" is a modal verb in English, it is used in a subjunctive here to, as mentioned, express a wish or desire. It modifies the imperative, and turns it into an imperative of entreaty; or a 'jussive' (which is similar to the cohortative, "Let us..."). –  Ghostpsalm Aug 2 '12 at 10:25

Putting "May" first changes the sentence from a command to a request. Rather than instructing God to bless someone, the speaker is rather hoping that God will do so.

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Some people are offended when told "have a nice day!", thinking "don't tell me what kind of day to have!". For them, "May you have a nice day!" would be nicer. Similarly, using the bare imperative could be interpreted as telling God what to do, which is rude. –  Kate Gregory Aug 1 '12 at 16:44
    
Exactly - I mentally (emotionally?) translate "may" to "I hope". –  Mark Allen Aug 1 '12 at 22:22

When studying biblical hebrew, I ran into the usage of the jussive form - the third person form of the imperative. This is often used with relation to prayers. It is often translated as "may", so that may be the source of this usage - that is, a word that implies a command without actually commanding God.

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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 10 '13 at 10:44

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