At certain times or events, you may have heard the phrase, “Many happy returns of the day!” and wondered what it meant. However, the unconventional phrasing may lead you to ask, “Is it correct to say, ‘Many Happy Returns of the Day’?”
As an expression, it is perfectly correct to use “many happy returns of the day” in the correct context. This context includes most annual celebrations that happen on the same day every year. When used incorrectly it would be considered a fragmented sentence.
In this article, we’ll break down the different components of the phrase, examine its uses and functions, and then think about some context-appropriate alternatives. By the end, we’ll have some tips and tricks to help you figure out how to effectively employ a phrase that not many know how to use correctly.
Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “Many Happy Returns Of The Day”?
As an interjection or imperative, it is perfectly grammatically correct to say, “Many happy returns of the day,” although it’s otherwise a sentence fragment. Of course, some would argue that such categorization prevents it from being a fragment, but we generally avoid such expression in formal writing.
Still, similar to most congratulatory phrases, there is no need to put it into the context of a complete sentence to get the meaning across; in fact, in spoken language, likely, you won’t ever have to use this phrase in a complete sentence at all.
When written, the stakes are slightly different — if signing off a greeting card, for example, this is perfectly acceptable. However, using “Many happy returns of the day” among other, complete sentences will likely be grammatically incorrect.
If necessary, You can use the phrase in a full sentence. Nevertheless, keep in mind that unless you are writing some form of creative work, there is a low probability that you will need to use “Many happy returns of the day” in any way deviating from its original use as an interjection or imperative.
What Does “Many Happy Returns of the Day” Mean?
By saying “Many happy returns of the day,” you wish for a particular day to come around again — usually a birthday. “Many happy returns of the day” is an expression of celebration, much like one you would hear at a birthday party or an anniversary.
Still, many regard this idiom as a little archaic or old-fashioned (source).
Parts of Speech Breakdown
Breaking the phrase down word by word, the verb “return” means to “come or to go back to a previous place” (source). However, in this case, “return” is a noun, but the meaning does not really change; as a noun, it represents a “return” as an object.
See how the function of the word changes in the examples below, but the word itself does not.
- I eagerly await the day’s return.
- She will return early in the morning.
- Her return will be at sunrise.
Another meaning of the word “return” has a financial nuance — the phrase has an additional connotation of wishing productivity, success, financial gain, or profit.
To use the word “many” here implies that you wish this to be a continued success, “happy” implies positivity, and “day” refers to the moment of time you hope someone experiences again.
With this sort of breakdown, it appears evident that the most commonplace moment to wish someone “many happy returns of the day” will be on their birthday.
It Usually Means “Happy Birthday”
By telling someone, “Many happy returns of the day,” you are telling them that you hope they continue to have many happy birthdays; it is a way of wishing someone a “Happy birthday” without using that phrase (source).
These facts make “many happy returns of the day” not only a conventional phrase but an idiom or a phrase whose meaning we cannot derive from its constituent parts. Moreover, since the phrase does not specify what day will return, it is representative of figurative language.
Other commonplace idioms include “over the moon,” “raining cats and dogs,” and “on thin ice.” None of these phrases are actually talking about the physical, real definitions of the words included; instead, they play on the words to create symbolic meaning.
How Do You Use “Many Happy Returns of the Day”?
The idiom “Many happy returns of the day” is one many use as an interjection; you generally would not use it as a part of a larger sentence unless you were referencing the phrase itself or putting it into the context of something like a birthday wish.
Dictionaries usually define interjections as phrases expressing an emotional reaction, such as “Ah!” “Oops!” or “Ouch!” However, they also include phrases like “Thank you!” or “Happy Birthday!” (source).
If you wanted to use it as part of a sentence, you would have to contextualize it with a subject and a verb, such as “I wish ___” Otherwise, as a noun phrase in a conversation, it can stand on its own.
- I wish you many happy returns of the day!
- Although the card read “Many happy returns of the day!” it did not feel sincere.
However, using “Many happy returns of the day” in a written form is technically incorrect. As it is a noun phrase, some would consider it an incomplete sentence or a sentence fragment. Of course, many still debate whether or not an interjection is a fragment or in its own classification.
Similar to its counterpart, “Happy Birthday” or general phrases such as “Congratulations,” “Thank You,” and “My Condolences,” which all similarly feature on greeting cards, it is a fragment that many have accepted as a grammatically correct phrase.
In general, you would use it on its own; however, since it had its heyday around the 18th century, it is now mostly obsolete as a phrase in commonplace use.
This would be something to employ on very formal occasions — perhaps with a boss, an esteemed business client, or in any situation that requires a high register. Older generations would perhaps best understand and appreciate it.
Using “Many Happy Returns of the Day” in a Full Sentence
To use “many happy returns of the day” in a full sentence, you would have to make sure that, apart from that noun phrase, you also include other possible components of a full sentence, such as a subject, object, and verb.
Make sure to mention all of these components; otherwise, the sentence is likely not to make sense. For example, take a look at the difference between the following:
- She wishes many happy returns of the day.
- Wishes you many happy returns of the day.
- She wishes you many happy returns of the day.
Although the verb is present in all of them, and at least one of either the subject or the object, only the final sentence is grammatically correct because it employs all of the different parts that need to go into a full sentence (source).
You can also use the phrase in a dialogue if writing a larger narrative.
- “Many happy returns of the day!” she declared.
Although there is no object in the sentence, by transforming the noun phrase into a dialogue, the sentence is both complete and correct.
When Can You Use “Many Happy Returns of the Day”?
While “Many happy returns of the day” has a very specific meaning, it can technically broaden to include others. Most often, though, you can use “Many happy returns of the day” when wishing someone a happy birthday.
In this case, the phrase acts as both a greeting and a congratulation. For example, you could say, “Many happy returns of the day!” when greeting someone on their birthday, or you could write it in a card you addressed to them to give as a gift.
“Many happy returns of the day” can also be an imperative phrase. This means that it functions as a command, advice, or request — it directly asks something of another person. When you tell someone, “Many happy returns of the day,” you are in a way requesting them to have a good celebration.
As we mentioned before, you could also use it referentially by referring to a time in which you used it. In this case, the matter surrounding the sentence would likely have to be in either the past or present tense.
- I wished her many happy returns of the day.
- I will wish her many happy returns of the day.
While these two sentences make sense, take into consideration what would happen if we wrote it in the present tense:
- I wish her many happy returns of the day.
Although grammatically correct, it not only sounds awkward but is also a confusing phrase to find a place for in natural speech or writing.
In What Context Can You Use “Many Happy Returns of the Day”?
Although “Many happy returns of the day” does not specifically imply someone’s birthday, this is the way you would usually use it. Theoretically, you could also use this on any occasion that happens once a year, such as a wedding anniversary or some other anniversary.
Do note you would have to use this phrase on the day of the event. Since it is so closely tied to the notion of time, as it references a specific day, it makes no sense to use it a day in advance or after the congratulatory event.
Likewise, as opposed to being able to wish someone a “Belated happy birthday,” it is not correct to wish someone a “Belated many happy returns of the day.”
This may be difficult with people choosing to celebrate their birthday on a day other than the actual event due to various factors, such as time constraints. In this case, you should opt to use a different congratulatory term.
When Not to Use “Many Happy Returns of the Day”?
Although you can use this phrase in contexts other than someone’s birthday, keep in mind that you should still only use it to celebrate an annual event. For example, you should not use it to congratulate someone on a graduation or a new job promotion.
Since these are not recurring celebrations, using “Many happy returns of the day” would not be appropriate.
Even for some recurring celebrations, it does not make sense to wish “Many happy returns of the day.” For one, this is because these celebrations lack the personal element that a congratulatory remark like this warrants.
Another reason is that these other holidays likely have their own celebratory phrase attached, such as “Happy Valentine’s Day!” or “Merry Christmas.” In cases such as these, saying “Many happy returns of the day” would be a little odd and not advisable.
What Can You Use Instead of “Many Happy Returns of the Day”?
The best alternative to “Many happy returns of the day” would be to use the specific congratulatory phrase for the occasion. For example, if using it to express a birthday wish, you could say “Happy Birthday” instead, which is less formal.
You can also add the age if you’d like to say “Happy 20th!” or “Happy 20th Birthday!” if using it for an anniversary, “Happy Anniversary” would suffice.
Another alternative is to simply shorten the phrase to say, “Many Happy Returns!” Not only is this a good alternative, but it is also a little simpler; you can use this phrase in a variety of less formal occasions.
In fact, by abbreviating the phrase, you can nearly get rid of all its prior connotations of formality altogether.
Interjections and Imperatives
Interjections and imperative have similar functions in that they often function as sentences even though they do not contain a subject or, in the case of interjections, a verb. For example, we might view our title phrase as either an imperative as in “Have many happy returns” or an interjection as in “I wish you many happy returns.”
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Rather counterintuitively, not all imperatives are commands, and we use them often for social expressions like “Have a nice day” (source). Similarly, we understand interjections like “Thank you” to mean “I thank you.
Next time, instead of wishing someone “Happy Birthday,” try wishing them “Many happy returns of the day!” Even though it is not the most popular way to congratulate someone on their birthday, they will surely appreciate its unique nature.
After all, not only are you expressing delight for the day of their birth but also wishing them longevity, happiness, and continued success.