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May vs Might


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I know I could leave this question with my editor, but I thought I'd try to get it right before I send it to him, and to work out the correct rule.

When do you use "may" instead of "might"?

The phrase that trigger this off was:

There may/might be something in there.

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A fine book on my shelf called The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein had the answer.

Bernstein indicates that may/might is a question of tense:

"He thinks he may go to Washington." (Present tense)

"He thought he might go to Washington." (Past tense)

But he goes on to say that the words differ in usage as well. May poses a possibility, while might poses a greater degree of uncertainty.

So the difference is subtle.

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But he goes on to say that the words differ in usage as well. May poses a possibility, while might poses a greater degree of uncertainty.

So the difference is subtle.

Okay -- so in my example, either could be used and it would depend on the level of uncertainty I wanted to project.


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According to my Oxford A-Z of grammar, the use of MAY is if the situation can easily be thought of as happening, or in the case of past tense, at that point it was easily thought of as happenable. In the case of MIGHT, it is something that is within the realms of possibility, but thought of as very unlikely, and in the case of past tense, at that time thought of as unlikely to happen, but still within possibility.

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I'd say can/could are similar to may/might in how the shades of meaning differ.

That sounded inscrutably Zen, didn't it?

can:could :: may:might = can is to could as may is to might;

There, that's clearer.

However, the same isn't true of will/would and shall/should. Those are strictly indicative versus conditional/subjunctive. In plain English will and shall say what is or ought to be, while would and should say what would or might be.

Could, would, should, and might are not quite past tense forms, though. They can and do function in the past, but usually when they do, they are in the form, "could have (verb)-ed." Like in the example Graeme asked about, they may suggest the past. They may give the possibility of the past, present, or future, but with an indefiniteness, a "what-if" feeling. That's why they are a separate tense or mood.

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Sorry (in advance) I can't resist

There was a young man who would,

If ever a young man can, he could,

He said he might,

If conditions were right

But may not, even if he should.

There was a young dude called Will

Who mind wasn't very still,

He wondered if he should, could or would

And when he shall, or might, if he can, get wood

To satisfy the brother of a girl called Lill.

Pick the odd couple:






There was young man called Ray,

Who may have wanted to have his way,

With anyone he could

If only they would,

So he might prove he is gay.

Will would,

If he could,


If it was not right

Never if he should.


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  • 10 months later...

The answer has been given but fortuitously I've been writing about this very issue recently. This won't help anyone else but it will help me to vent a bit :)

My contention is that might is not just the past tense of may but the subjunctive mood. It looks like the past tense because for English modals the past tense and the subjunctive are often lookalikes. Consider

  1. He is a friend of mine so he won't betray me
  2. He was a friend of mine so he didn't betray me
  3. If he were a friend of mine, he wouldn't betray me

The distinction in the second and third examples demonstrates that were is not the past tense: that's was. Since the difference in context is that two is real (realis in grammar) and three is mere possibility (irrealis in grammar), I say that three is subjunctive. Typically the subjunctive mood in grammar is reserved for matters of "epistemic doubt" (since that just means doubt about knowing, I have to ask, what other kind of doubt is there?).

The present tense of may is used in English to express permission and possibility. If I ever asked my mother "Can I go to Chris's house?" she was wont to reply "I should think you can, you have legs to walk but the question is may you. Thanks mum, it was tedious but at least I learned the difference. The past tense of may is used to express the subjunctive: possibility about which there is doubt.

  1. Will he betray me? He might.

So grammatically it's the past tense of may and semantically it's the subjunctive.

Normal service will soon be resumed.


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I think that there is a 'flavor' difference as well...'may,' to my mind, has a slightly more formal feel to it, don't you think? I know that this sort of thing is pretty subjective, but such differences are more important to me - though I hesitate to admit it - than whether it's subjunctive, adjunctive, or recyclable. :smile:



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