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For example:

God bless America.

seems to be a shorter way of saying

May God bless America.

Is "bless" in both of these cases in the subjunctive?

("God, bless America." is clearly imperative.)

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"Subjunctive" refers to a set of endings for verbs in various languages. It is nearly obsolete in English, but

God bless America.

is one of the surviving examples. "Bless" is subjunctive there.

May God bless America.

has very similar meaning, and has replaced that use of the subjunctive except in a few set expressions (for example "God bless... ", "Long live ... "). It uses the modal auxiliary "may" followed by the infinitive (basic form) of the verb "bless".

The infinitive is identical to the old subjunctive in every case, even the wildly irregular verb "be"; but it is preferable to treat this construction as using the infinitive because all other uses of modal auxiliaries (eg 'must', 'can' could', should') take the infinitive. I've never come across an account suggesting that "bless" is the subjunctive form of the verb when it is in "may ... bless".

Some people do refer to this construction as "subjunctive", but I've never seen any point in doing so: in most languages, "subjunctive" refers to a set of verb forms.

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  • «I've never come across an account suggesting that "bless" is the subjunctive form of the verb when it is in "may ... bless"» So grammatically "may" is no different than "can"? – Geremia Nov 15 '16 at 16:04
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    Syntactically, may is no different from can, or for that matter from will (which is why I maintain that English has no future tense). Semantically, of course, it is different; and that has one very odd consequence: this form "May X <do> Y" (as in this example) is not necessarily a question, whereas with any other modal it would be a question. – Colin Fine Nov 15 '16 at 17:49

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