Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 09:05:27 -0800


Subject: Re: may/might distinction

On Tue, 19 Mar 1996, Ronald Butters wrote:

I have collected over the past twenty years numerous print

examples from well-educated people of sentences like,

"If he didn't have to run against Anderson as well as Nixon, Hubert

Humphrey may have been elected president of the United States." Despite

my years of sensitivity training as a linguist who knows that "barbaric"

is not an appropriate term to use to characterize linguistic change in

progress, and not withstanding my realization that all sorts of

supereducated folks make

no may/might distinction, such sentences still strike me as ludicrous and


I'm wondering if there is anyone else left on the planet (or at least on

this mailing list) who shares my linguistic prejudice--or even

understands the semantic difference between MAY and MIGHT in the example

given above.

YES, ME!!!

I've become aware of this phenomenon only in the last year or so. I heard

an instance just this morning on NPR, and although I, too, grit my teeth

and remind myself of the inevitability of language change and the already

well-advanced decay of both our modal verb system and the subjunctive

system in English . . . it still drives me CRAZY! And others to whom I've

pointed it out have expressed surprise and consternation, never having

noticed it themselves. To me, "may" and "might" have always been very

distinct and could never be used interchangeably in a conditional context

such as those you cite. (They would be interchangeable in a context such

as "You may/might want to read this book - it's interesting." But there

would still be a difference, perhaps in my degree of conviction in my own


Peter McGraw

Linfield College

McMinnville, OR