I “Might” Have Known

I haven’t done a grammar post since I started tweeting grammar tips. But here’s a subject that won’t fit into 140 characters.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of misuse of may and might—in the opposite direction from the misuse I’ve been accustomed to. It’s common to see might used where may is correct, but now I’m seeing an overcorrection in the use of may where might is correct. (For similar overcorrections, see previous posts, “Whom shall I say is calling?” and “I Object to Objective ‘I.'”)

Here’s the deal: might is (big-grammar-word alert) the subjunctive. In other words, it’s used to denote an improbable, impossible, or hypothetical condition. For example, in the past tense:

She might have been a world-famous writer by now if she’d started younger.

May, on the other hand, denotes an unknown but possible or probable condition. For example:

She may have exhausted all her best ideas.

In the present or future tense, the distinction is a little less clear; it’s more of a continuum than an either/or. Use may if the situation is more probable and might if it’s less probable.

Present tense examples:

He may be at home writing.

He might be at the local bookstore signing 3000 copies of his latest book.

Future tense examples:

Her book may get published if she works hard at it.

Her book might earn her a million dollars.

Get the general idea?

Just to be clear, we’re not talking here about the homonym, may denoting permission. That’s a whole other blog post (which I may write someday).

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One comment on “I “Might” Have Known

  1. Donna Farley says:

    thank you! One of my (too many) pet peeves….:-)

    I finally realized I didn’t have your blog on my Networked Blogs app– fixed that now!

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