Have a nice day. Have a safe flight. The yearbook standard, HAGS. Get better. Even sleep well.

In English when we want to wish someone well we often command that well of them. We treat the good tidings like they are in that person’s control. (This phenomenon may also appear in other languages—I am not well enough tongued.)

Likely we are simply contracting “I hope that you have a nice day,” or the like—and I am just observing the overlap of subjunctive and imperative—though I am curious of speakers’ awareness that they are so contracting.

My question is one of history. Have we always been comfortable with this elision? At what point did it become acceptable, if at one point it was considered rude, to command someone to be well, rather than to wish it upon them?

I could believe a correlation with secularizarion, as hope or prayer becomes less useful or sensical without a sense of a divine power—in what do we hope? Instead we make the hearer of our well wishes an agent of their own well-being, rather than the recipient of any mercy.

Secondarily I am interested in whether we can now consider the construction an imperative, even if it once was the contraction of a subjunctive phrase.

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    Also "take care" as you set off on a trip, which implies that if the plane crashes, it is your fault. :)
    – ab2
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 2:40
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    It's still the same, with the elision. cf. "Happy Birthday"; "Happy New Year"; "Merry Christmas" .... No imperative as in @ab2 comment!
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 7:54
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    @ab2 That's a different kind of animal. Either that, or you are saying "(May the Almighty) take care (of you)." "As you will be away, I can no longer be there for you if you need help, so I hand your care over to (the Almighty)." Too much lost in contraction.
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 7:54
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    I do have a reference for another language to point out. In German the common phrase "Machs Gut" ('Do Well' or more literally 'Make Good') has a similar form. The fact that this phrase is common in several off-branches of the language, such as Pennsylvania German, seems to imply several hundred years of lineage. Come to think of it, Spanish has "Vaya con Dios" ("Go with God") if we could sample from enough languages it might be found as a fairly common European cultural trait. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 19:40
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    For comparison, it may be noted that some other languages have clearly imperative (i.e., non-elided) equivalents, some have subordinate clause–like constructions (which would indicate elision), and some allow both. For example, it is equally natural in Spanish to say “¡Ten un buen día!” (‘have a nice day’) and “¡Que tengas un buen día!” (‘…that you may have a nice day’, eliding ‘I hope’), while the Scandinavian languages use imperatives exclusively (e.g., in Sw. imperative “Ha en bra dag!” is the only one used). So there doesn’t have to be any elision at all. Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 12:47

3 Answers 3


These are short for wishes, blessings, or curses addressed to a listener, usually with may, like

  • (May you) sleep well/win the race/break a leg!
  • (May you) have a good time/a safe flight/a happy Holi!
  • (May you) go to hell!

With a second-person subject, the may and the you are both understood, hence deletable by conversational deletion, a procedure related to imperative you-deletion, but more general.

  • Is there any actual evidence to suggest that they are all shortenings, rather than just plain imperatives? Semantically, they are obviously not orders, but well-wishes (except ‘go to hell’, which is definitely a direct, firm order in my worldview), but that doesn’t mean they have to be grammatically. There are several examples from Old English—where imperatives and infinitives were separate—which use imperatives (e.g., wes hāl ‘be well’) and can thus not be seen as grammatical elisions. Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 12:56
  • People who utter bene- or maledictions with intent to produce good or bad magical effects have their own ideas about what's going on; I wouldn't presume to discuss their individual derivations of such phrases. As for the categorization, it's hard to distinguish between an expressed wish for someone to do something and an order for them to do it; the distinction has to do with authority in social context, not grammatical category. Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 16:47
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    Agreed. These phrases aren't commanding the listener (as the questioner put it), they are directing the universe/fate/gods.
    – 2540625
    Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 17:18

The Ngram (1600-2008) indicates rapid increase in the use of 'goodbye' from 1850 yet does not show what it is replacing when compared to a variety of what I would consider to be older alternatives.

In answer to the question :

I could believe a correlation with secularizarion, as hope or prayer becomes less useful or sensical without a sense of a divine power—in what do we hope?

My own conjecture (and it can be only conjecture) from this data is that a very large spectrum of familiar sayings, blessings of various kinds and individual mannerisms are being replaced by 'goodbye' in a way that cannot easily be documented.

I would say, from just this graph, that without a blessing 'from above' there is an increase not in anything else (such as making the recipient an agent in their own protection) - for there is nothing else.

There is just a rapid increase (see the graph) - in formality.

Edit: The comments and Ngams below (by @JJJ) are also relevant to this answer.


I know in Victorian times, when you wanted to insult someone you wouldnt say and bad words, in fact you would say in a harsh voice, "good day to you, very good day!" this may mean that politeness can sometimes mean rudeness aswell

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