“May” versus “Might”

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.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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4 Responses to “May” versus “Might”

  1. “Less” and “fewer” drives me nuts, too!!

    • And “amount” and “number” – as in “a large amount of people” (which should be “number” of people because people can be counted). I had a student tell me a few years ago that she got offered her position at a premier software company because of my class :*-) One of the things they do to weed out job candidates is give them a grammar/punctuation/usage test.

  2. What is the difference between “that” and “which”?

    • Well, in general “which” is used when you also use commas, which set off non-restrictive clauses. (See? I just used “which” correctly in that sentence, following the comma. That was an accident, but it worked out nicely.)

      Some people argue that “which” should never be used with restrictive clauses (no commas), but I think that’s a matter of personal style. Either “that” or “which” can be used in a phrase/clause that (or, which! 🙂 ) isn’t surrounded by commas (as in this sentence).

      So the main thing to remember is NOT to use “that” when you have commas, which set off an appositive-type phrase/clause that adds extra information but isn’t needed for the main meaning of the sentence.

      And if my explanation isn’t clear, you can definitely Google “restrictive” versus “non-restrictive” and see other good examples.

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