Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 10:35:04 -0800


Subject: Re: May/Might : epistemics and tense

So far everyone seems to be agreeing with my discomfort over the

disappearance of the may/might distinction, but, with respect, everybody

also seems to be missing the point.

I see no TENSE distinction between "may" and "might" in any of the

examples I've seen during this discussion. In both "may have won" and

"might have won," the past element is in the "have+past participle"

construction, not in the modal. The two forms of the modal differ in

mood, not tense, with "may" the indicative and "might" the subjunctive.

In the sentence

(6) He might have won, if Clinton hadn't run against him.

"Might" indicates that having won (in the past) is (at the present or any

time) not possible, because it would only have been the case if the

condition had been met, but because the condition itself is expressed in

the subjunctive, we know that it is contrary to fact (i.e., Clinton

in fact did run against him), thus ruling out the possibility of the

subject having won.

If we change the problematic utterance

(8) *He may have won, if Clinton hadn't run against him.

to the unproblematic (if unlikely) one

(9) He may have won, if Clinton hasn't run against him.

then "may" indicates that the situation of having won is possible, subject

only to the condition being satisfied. And the fact that the condition

is expressed in the indicative tells us that it may in fact be satisfied

- we just don't happen to know whether Clinton has run or not.

For speakers who don't make the may/might distinction, #8 above is

acceptable. What bothers me about utterances like this is that for me the

speaker is saying precisely the opposite of what he or she means.

Peter McGraw

Linfield College

McMinnville, OR

On Tue, 19 Mar 1996, Rudy Troike wrote:


Many thanks for the examples and clarification. A complicating issue

I'd like to see your comments on is that your (1) and (3) both contain a

past tense in the main clause, while (2) and (4) are present tense. There is

thus a tense (time?) conflict which seems also needing to be taken into


(1) He might have won but he didn't.

(2) #He may have won but he didn't.

(3) It was possible for him to win but he didn't.

(4) #It is possible that he won but he didn't.

Note the differences in readings of might in:

(5) He might have won, but just hasn't heard yet.

(6) He might have won, if Clinton hadn't run against him.

(7) He may have won, but just hasn't heard yet.

(8) *He may have won, if Clinton hadn't run against him.

Thanks for raising the discussion above the anecdotal level, and giving us

some principled reasons to think about.


--Rudy Troike (rtroike[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]