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Choosing the Right Word

May I? Might I? The Distinction between May and Might

People often use may and might interchangeably, but they are different. May and might are both indicate that something is possible, but something that may happen is more likely than something that might happen.

People become confused about these words for several reasons:

1.     The difference between them is subtle. Both imply the possibility of something happening. Here’s the distinction:
More likely: Use may.
I may go to the movies tomorrow night.
If I get there in time, I may buy popcorn.
If you go, you may see me there.
Less likely:  Use might.
I might go on safari in Africa if I win the lottery.
She might be at home now, but I doubt it.
I have the choice between rappelling down a cliff and watching an IMAX movie of someone else rappelling down a cliff. Given my fear of heights, I may want to watch the movie. Of course, I might also go for the real experience, but I’d have to have a good incentive.

2.     May also means “having permission”.

I’d like to go into the auditorium now, if I may.
May I accompany you?
My mother says I may not go with you.

3.     When there may be doubt about whether may implies possibility or permission, clarify your meaning by using might even for events that are rather likely. For example, if you say, “We may not attend the conference,” a reader might think that you do not have permission to attend. If you do have permission but it is possible you won’t attend, you would have to write, “We might not attend the conference.” In general, avoid using may not except to imply that you lack permission.

4.     Believe it or not, might is the past tense of may. (What sadist invented the English language?) Even if the event you are describing is likely (meaning that the right choice is may), you must use might if you are using the past tense.

When I said I might go to the movies, I was assuming that we would have free passes.
He said he might attend the party, but I guess something came up.
She might have written the book under a pen name.

May and might are both called modals, as are words such as would, should, and could. Modals are helping verbs that indicate the mood or attitude of the main verb.  They are tricky little monsters that often defy clear definition. I might have gone on and on about modals, but I shall spare you.  Just remember that, in the present tense, what may happen is more probable than what might happen. In the past tense, it is quite difficult to distinguish the two words without additional explanation. I might not have gone into every possible variable, but I believe that you may find this explanation useful.

©2013 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

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