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Might You Mean May?

What is the difference between may and might? There may have been a clear difference long ago, and there still might be a difference in some sticklers’ minds, but today the two verbs are, with few exceptions, interchangeable.

Grammarians tell us that might is the past tense of may, but that fact, while interesting, does not offer much guidance, considering how frequently we use both may and might to talk about the present (I may/might be ready to leave now) and the future (I may/might call you tomorrow).

Many scholarly discussions of may vs. might state that may is used when something is more likely to happen, and might is used when something is less likely to happen. So when you say I may be ready to leave, there is a good chance you are departing, but when you say I might be ready to leave, you’d probably prefer to stick around awhile.

It is remarkable how many authorities, even today, buy into this. In the 2016 revised edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes, “May expresses likelihood … while might expresses a stronger sense of doubt.”

We find this assertion baffling, and we are not alone. The online American Heritage dictionary says in a usage note: “It is sometimes said that might suggests a lower probability than may … In practice, however, few people make this distinction.” This echoes what the language scholar John B. Bremner wrote forty years ago: “Some lexicographers see a nuance between may and might in the context of probability … If such distinction exists in common language, the distinction is even thinner than nuance.”

Here are some exceptions to the interchangeability of may and might:

• Sometimes might means “should”: You’d think he might be more careful means he should be more careful. No one who speaks fluent English would substitute may for might in that sentence.

• Most of us choose may over might in wishful or hopeful statements, such as May they live happily ever after.

• When a hypothetical sentence is set in the past, might is usually a better option: If she had worked harder, she might have kept her job. But when such sentences are in the present tense, either may or might can be used: If she works harder, she may/might be able to keep her job.

• And you will note that the first word in the title of this article could not possibly be “May.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, at 4:43 pm


A Couple of Things, and a Couple More

The word couple literally means “two,” but it is often used to mean “an indefinite small number.” So if you were to say, “I only have a couple of dollars,” you would probably not be called out if you really had three or four.

However, your friend the grammar stickler might take exception if you said you had “a couple dollars.” Although “a couple dollars” is common in everyday speech, traditionalists insist on “a couple of dollars.” And since a couple of dollars doesn’t sound stuffy or pretentious, why leave of out?

But things get tricky when couple is used with words and phrases of comparison, such as more, fewertoo many, too few. Many people would say a couple of more dollars, but in that construction the of is dropped: a couple more dollars and a couple too few dollars are correct. However, if we slightly revise those phrases, ofmust be put back:  a couple of dollars more and a couple of dollars too few are correct.

When the noun couple refers to two people, you often see it used as a singular: The couple was having dinner. But the more one writes, the more one discovers that with couple the plural verb should be used unless there is an excellent reason not to.

While it is true that The couple was having dinner is unobjectionable, what if we expand the sentence a bit. If the subject of a sentence starts out singular, it should remain singular. So if we wanted to say where the dinner took place, we would be forced to write The couple was having dinner in its home. That is atrocious, but so is The couple was having dinner in their home. Therefore, make it  The couple were having dinner in their home. And make couple plural whenever possible (which is most of the time). You’ll be in good company.

*****

We recently heard from a reader who objected to a sentence she found in one of our online quizzes:  We’ll hire the applicant whom we talked with. She urgently informed us that “you do not end a sentence with a preposition!!!!”

This “rule” is the Walking Dead of English-grammar superstitions—a festering pest that cannot be destroyed. We are scolded about it at least once a year, and without exception those who upbraid us offer no evidence to substantiate their claims. (That is because none exists.) So we hereby challenge anyone who still swears by this dubious principle to relocate the preposition in this sentence: Speak when you are spoken to.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, at 9:03 am


Irregular Verbs: Handle with Care

During a recent broadcast of America’s professional-basketball playoffs, a popular commentator said, “I wish he had did it” instead of had done it. A few days later, a longtime Washington insider with his own TV show said “if he had ran” instead of had run.

When those who should know better misuse irregular verbs, it is jarring and distracting. We use these verbs all the time. We might as well get them right. See how you do on the quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. She was gazing at a picture that her son had recently ___.

A) drawed
B) drew
C) drawn

2. You have finally ___ me a reason to trust them.

A) gave
B) given
C) give
D) gived

3. Have you ___ that thank-you note to your aunt yet?

A) write
B) wrote
C) written
D) writ

4. Just hearing that old song ___ back a lot of memories.

A) brang
B) brought
C) A and B are both correct

5. She still has not ___ him for the mistake he made.

A) forgiven
B) forgave
C) forgive
D) forgived

6. Lannie had his favorite shoes ___ in the back of the closet.

A) hid
B) hidden
C) A and B are both correct

7. A problem had suddenly ___ with our dinner reservations.

A) araised
B) arose
C) arised
D) arisen

8. The sweet smell of orchids ___ in the air.

A) clung
B) clinged
C) clang

9. My jacket ___ her perfectly.

A) fit
B) fitted
C) A and B are both correct

10. We had not even ___ two miles before we came to a fork in the road.

A) rode
B) ridden
C) ride
D) riden

ANSWERS

1: C) drawn

2: B) given

3: C) written

4: B) brought

5: A) forgiven

6: B) hidden

7: D) arisen

8: A) clung

9: C) A and B are both correct

10: B) ridden

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Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, at 4:20 pm


Media Watch

Here is another set of recent flubs and fumbles from usually dependable journalists.

• “Yet my relationship with the game was simple and uncomplicated.”

How did this one get by the editors? One of those two adjectives has to go.

• “He is accused of fleeing to London in March while owing more than $1 billion dollars to Indian banks.”

The dollar sign means “dollars,” so “$1 billion dollars” is as redundant as “simple and uncomplicated.”

• “The vessels have the capacity to carry about 2½ times the number of containers than held by ships now using the canal.

Why would anyone put than in that sentence?

• “The outpouring of anger and concern show that California wants vital and vigilant coastal protections.”

The subject is the singular noun “outpouring,” so the verb should be shows.

• “To get in, I waded through a throng of protesters gathered around the entrance … A few protestors got close enough to snap pictures.”

The Associated Press Stylebook and many dictionaries accept only protester. Other dictionaries list protestor as an alternative spelling. But no authority alive recommends spelling the word both ways in the same paragraph.

• “It is an important fact ignored—or maybe unknown—to the candidate.”

The writer wanted to say that the “important fact” was either ignored by the candidate or unknown to the candidate. Here’s how to make it work with the dashes: It is an important fact ignored by—or maybe unknown to—the candidate.

• “The outcome is a major win for public employee unions, who would be weakened if members didn’t pay for representation.”

The word after “unions” should be which, not who. Despite being made up of people, a union is a thing. Writers should limit their use of who to humans.

• “Born in Brooklyn in 1922, stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld away from Hollywood.”

The dangler is alive and thriving in the twenty-first century. Did you spot it? To sticklers and other careful readers, this sentence is sheer nonsense: it states with a straight face that stage fright was born in Brooklyn in 1922. We could write  Stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld, who was born in Brooklyn in 1922, away from Hollywood. But now the reader wonders what being born in Brooklyn in 1922 has to do with stage fright and avoiding Hollywood. Year and place of birth are irrelevant here. The writer was trying to cram too much into one sentence.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 7:46 am


No Shortcuts with Irregular Verbs

It isn’t just the disadvantaged or disaffected among us who struggle with irregular verbs. A political insider with his own long-running TV show keeps saying “has ran.”

Fifty years ago a textbook called Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition said: “Irregular verbs … cause the greatest single problem in standard verb usage because there is no single rule that applies to them. A student of our language must know the principal parts of every irregular verb … and the only way to know them is to memorize them.”

We use these verbs all the time. We might as well get them right. See how you do on the irregular-verb quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

 

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. It turned out that being ___ solid actually saved his life.

A) frozen
B) froze
C) freezed

2. Barbara ___ for the faces of a family never seen.

A) weeped
B) weapt
C) wept
D) weaped

3. I saved him from getting ___.

A) drownded
B) drowned
C) drownd
D) drowneded

4. His actions have ___ to be contrary to his words.

A) proven
B) proved
C) A and B are both correct

5. Leon was ___ down by the tormenting weight of his burdens.

A) drug
B) drugged
C) drag
D) dragged

6 . She kept wearing it and wearing it until it was all ___ out.

A) wore
B) worn
C) A and B are both correct

7. It turned out we had always ___ the answer.

A) knewn
B) knew
C) knowed
D) known

8. The book was found ___ open on the floor.

A) lieing
B) laying
C) lying
D) lane

9. Why hasn’t someone ___ this by me sooner?

A) run
B) ran
C) running
D) ranned

10. We all thought Alfred had already ___ dinner.

A) ate
B) eaten
C) A and B are both correct

 

ANSWERS

1: A) frozen

2: C) wept

3: B) drowned

4: C) A and B are both correct

5: D) dragged

6: B) worn

7: D) known

8: C) lying

9: A) run

10: B) eaten

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Posted on Tuesday, February 23, 2016, at 10:22 am