About “I wish you strength”

“Hey, strength!”

In the Netherlands, we have one go-to phrase that we use if another person is in, or will soon be in, a difficult situation: if someone close to you is ill, dying or dead, if you are ill or dying, if you are depressed about being single, depressed about not being single, if you have a new job, if you have a presentation or if you dropped your mother’s favourite vase and are going to have to tell her about it, if you are sick of your boss but have to go in to work again on Monday, if you have to spend a whole day with your boring in-laws, if you have to eat your best friends terrible cooking…

If there is anything happening in your life that you have to deal with, and it’s not happy, then the Dutch wish each other sterkte: strength. They don’t say “I wish you strength” they just say “strength!”*

That one little word does a whole lot of heavy lifting, and it is no wonder that my article on how to translate “sterkte” into English is my most popular article by far.

*If they are feeling especially generous, they might say Hee, sterkte ermee, he? “Hey, strength with that thing, yeah?”

So is it just “I wish you strength”?

I am half British and half Dutch, and I don’t know if it is my British English or if it is the fact that it just sounded too Dutch to me, but saying “I wish you strength” in English always sounded off to me. I even worried that perhaps people would feel the well-wisher was implying that they are not a strong person.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sure, so I decided to crowdsource some language knowledge. I wanted to know if the phrase would sound “foreign” to a native English speaker, if it is a phrase that a native speaker would use. So I put up a questionnaire on Reddit, and asked the following question:

If you were going through a difficult period in your life, for example a death or serious illness in the family, and I sent you a card on which I wrote “I wish you strength”, how would you feel about that?

With the answer options:

That’s nice, and it’s good English

That’s nice, but it’s not good English

Are you saying I’m not a strong person?

Other:

I expected my survey to be filled in by 20, maybe 30 people, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to making it perfect. In the event, though, it was filled in by almost 2000 (!) people. The age skewed young (because Reddit!); a breakdown of the participants can be found in this article.

Results

Here are the results:

Clearly, I was completely off the mark thinking that people might feel that the strength wisher is insinuating they are not a strong person, with only 2% agreeing with me.

There was a reasonable 22% that agreed with me that it sounded “off” (“it’s not good English”), but lots of people responded that they felt the English was fine.

Next time…

I thought that by wording it “that’s good English” or “that’s not good English” I succinctly summarised the idea of “that’s what a native speaker would say”, but after seeing the results of the survey and reading some of the remarks, I realised that my wording wasn’t optimal.

I had used the same wording in a previous question about “to think along with“, a phrase that is much more clearly “odd English”, the “think” and the “along” not really matching. But “to wish someone strength” is grammatically correct, so perhaps I should have phrased the question differently.

Then again, this might just be me making excuses for the fact that my hypothesis is being disproved… The only way of knowing will be to ask this question again with different wording. Which is something I do think I’ll do because my article about this phrase gets a few hundred hits a day…

I should perhaps better have asked something like “is this something you would say?” or “If someone is going through a tough time, what would you say or write to them?”

If anybody reading this article has a good idea on how I should word the question, please let me know in a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

Also, when I ask the question again, I will also make sure that I do program the question where I asked people about their language background correctly, because I would love to know if there is a difference between American and British English!

Open responses

Because I like to be thorough, and I am very grateful to everyone who filled in my survey, and because I think Dutch people reading this might find some of the remarks helpful, here are some remarks from people who answered “other”:

I appreciate it, and it’s good English; but I absolutely would not use it myself if I were sending a card, because yes, I worry that the recipient can interpret it as saying they aren’t strong.

It’s good English, but maybe a bit archaic

It’s nice and it’s dated English

The sentiment is nice, but it could be misinterpreted and isn’t something someone would often say in English.

Doesn’t feel right, but it’s good English

That’s nice, and it’s good English, but it feels foreign if someone said that to an American

it’s good English but it’s trite

I would understand but I would think you are not a native speaker of English

it’s good English grammatically but isn’t a commonly used phrase. It’s weird, not wrong.

It’s become good enough English over the past 20 or so years.

Its a nice sentiment, but I would prefer if it elaborated — like, “I wish you strength to deal with your grief”.

It’s fine English tbh even if it might not make 100% sense

The english is fine, but on it’s own the statement lacks clarity in that situation.

Givrs me the “thoughts and prayers”-vibe. But sounds like good english 🙂

It’s not a common English phrase but it isn’t necessarily bad, and I would appreciate it.

as a linguist i’m having a hard time with this survey saying “good” and “bad” English, i would say it makes sense as it’s meaning is understanable

Fine english, but overly trite and a little demeaning.

That’s nice and it’s grammatically correct but doesn’t flow well

It seems like the classic “just be positive!” mindsets that ultimately ignore the true struggles and feelings of the person; nothing matters except to be mentally strong.

I get the jist, but it isn’t a common turn of phrase

That’s cheesy but fine enough English

That’s some empty platitudes, but fine English

It’s fine, but sounds kinda dated/archaic

It’s fine, it’s just a weird thing to say.

The english is fine, it’s an unusual thing to say unless you are very religious

That’s nice; English is malleable enough that, while it’s not PROPER English, it’s still fine.

It’s good English, but it feels awkward

Nice, but abnormal. Not necessarily bad English, but maybe from a different culture.

That’s nice, good English but uncommon.

it’s fine English, but a little rude

That’s nice, fine English, little unusual though

I dislike the sentiment, but I think it’s ok English

This might be more appropriate to say to someone going through a challenging endeavor that ultimately is their responsibility. Saying it to someone who is going through a hard time might come off as distant and unsupportive (ie. “I can’t do anything for you but I wish you strength to get through it.”) I’d avoid using this phrase in those situations.

I wouldn’t say it’s poor english, necessarily, but it’s definitely unusually worded

It’s good English but a cliché sentiment.

I would think Buddha or Asian culture

I understand the sentiment, but the wording is awkward enough that I could see it being used as backhanded in some petty instances. Awkward word choice.

That’s nice, but you’re either toxicly positive or haven’t ever dealt with a close death yourself

And here are some remarks people made at the end of the survey:

Here are some responses from English speakers about the term “I wish you strength”:

If someone wished me strength in a letter I would think it unusual and it would depend on the sender, but I might think that they’ve spent time on this letter choosing words carefully, and that in such a sense strength is a good word. It can suggest their support whilst implying that you are capable yourself of succeeding.

Wishing someone strength is idiomatic English, but not formal English. It is something you might hear someone say, but generally would not see written down.

I think it’s common for English folks to wish one another strength.

For “I wish you strength”; as a native English speaker I would consider it “good English” but would assume that the person does not speak English as a first language or heard the saying from someone who doesn’t speak it as a first language. It sounds a bit foreign in a way I just can’t describe. Normally, I think “I hope you can stay strong” or something similar would be used.

“I wish you strength” sounds perfect but is more suited for someone about to go through a hard time rather than someone who has just been through one. Probably a better translation would be “stay strong.”

I think wishing someone strength in trying times is fine if you follow it up wtih something. For example: “I wish you find strength to perservere in these trying times. I will be here to help you find that strength should you need it.” With no other context it would do nothing but confuse/insult the recipient of the sentiment and even with the context it could still come off as odd.

Wishing people strength is definitely something that happens in English.

I think saying you wish someone strength is a normal expression in hard times, at least in the US.

Wishing each other strength isn’t a common thing to do in English, but grammatically it’s perfectly fine.

“I wish you strength” makes perfect sense and is good English, but may sound somewhat religious or New Age-y. It seems to be a more popular phrase in the Wellness community in the USA for instance

“On the “wish you strength” question, I said “nice but not good English”. I couldn’t answer “good English” because you made me think about it, but if I got such a card I would not notice the slightly improper English.

In the suburban / semi-rural midwest US, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to hear “wishing you strength and comfort in this difficult time”. I didn’t find that phrasing of at all.

The strength phrase may vary in understanding based on how religious or mystical the listener is. But the phrase “give me strength” is known and used widely.

“I wish you strength” sounds very much like something I would hear at my (very non-traditional) synagogue — they often translate Hebrew in ways that feel like this, both unusual sounding due to the directness of the translation and also surprisingly poetic and powerful.

Generally phrases like “I wish you strength” are followed up with some context, like “I wish you strength in this trying time”.

I think “I wish you strength” makes total Sense in English, it’s just not super common to hear but I have heard it.

I’m super interested in the topic as I’m learning Dutch as a second language and funnily enough, immediately recognized it was relating to Dutch when you mentioned “strength”.

I thought “I wish you strength” was unusual but sweet.

I don’t wish “strength” for others, but I do tell some people to “stay strong”.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

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