Date: Fri, 22 Mar 1996 12:18:17 -0500


Subject: May-might

I'm finding some of these examples too forced to judge. Taking a look at

Webster's Usage Dict. and Webster's Third I find helps clear things up for

me. By the way, I think we're talking just about possibility, aren't we?

Next, I would say in my speech, that in a condition contrary to fact

statement (with if clause) MIGHT must be used and not MAY.

10. He might have won if he'd tried harder

11. *He may have won if he'd tried harder.

But with no additional clause both may and might are interchangeable in

their ability to express possibility, with, as W3 notes, might perhaps

expressing somewhat less possibility

12. Did he win? a. He may have.

b. He might have

In other words- it's possible- I just don't know.

13. You may be right

14. You might be right

In other words, I'm not sure, or I'm agreeing with you politely.

Curiously, I find an exact reversal of what we'd expect in the past, where I

find MAY the only choice in this sentence...

15. Someone may have lived there years ago (It's possible, but I don't know)

*Someone might have lived there years ago

...because of the interference I think I'm getting from MIGHT clauses with


16. He might have lived there happily, if she hadn't dragged him overseas.

WDEU says of the confusion, that MAY is more common in Brit. Eng. and gives

this example as ambiguous, which I find clear

17. At first it was believed that the boy may have survived in a pocket of

air, but...(he had already drowned).

WDEU says we are led to believe the boy lived. But doesn't the AT FIRST take

care of that?

But-clauses are more difficult for me. Paraphrasing Beth's NY Times article:

18. He may finish higher than her, but he did make that mistake (present


19. He might finish higher than her, but he did make that mistake (equal to


20. He may have finished higher than her, but he did make that mistake

(It's true he finished high, but he shouldn't get too cocky cause he

goofed badly at one point) Here we're out of the realm of possiblity. This

is the way the NYT phrased it but they meant to convey the meaning in 21.

21. He might have finished higher than her, but he made that mistake

Sentence 21 is in the past, and I'd be more likely to say...

22. He could have finished higher than her, if he hadn't made that mistake

Dale Coye

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Princeton, NJ.