There is a difference between “may” and “might.” I don’t think the distinction is taught in school, and because neither is the kind of word that would call attention to itself when used incorrectly in conversation, it’s not usually a recognizable grammar deficiency. However, I see the two confused in newspaper articles all the time. Because even most journalists don’t know the difference (see this New York Times “After Deadline” blog/column on the topic by Philip B. Corbett, the deputy news editor in charge of the newspaper’s style manual), perhaps “may”/“might” is a helpful topic to blog about today.
“May” and “might” are a special type of helping verb called a “modal.” “May” goes with present-tense verbs; “might” goes with past tense. Similar examples of past/present modal pairs include will/would, can/could, and shall/should.
If I read a newspaper article with a sentence like, “The toddler may have drowned,” I assume we don’t know yet if that’s what actually happened. The toddler is missing and was last seen near a body of water, so it’s possible he may have drowned. But if the story ends with a photo of the smiling toddler in his mother’s arms, I’m confused to discover not only that he is alive but also that everyone has known it all along.
The reporter should have written, “The toddler might have drowned, but an alert teenager saved him.” (Thank goodness! 🙂 )
Here’s a sentence with another scenario: “Rescue workers say the toddler, who slipped into the drainage ditch during yesterday’s storm, may still be alive if the sewer grate at Smith Road was intact.” The situation sounds hopeful. We need to check the status of that sewer grate. If it was intact at the time the child was swept away, then he may have survived and we’ll find him wandering nearby, frightened but okay.
But suppose the story does not have a happy ending? Suppose the child has already been found dead in a creek fed by that drainage ditch, and the missing sewer grate has been identified as contributing to the tragedy. In this case, using “may” instead of “might” not only conveys the wrong impression but, worse, also raises false hopes.
One word can make all the difference between accurate and inaccurate reporting.