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.”

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

If you wish to respond to another reader's question or comment, please click its corresponding "REPLY" button. If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

3 Comments on Might You Mean May?

3 responses to “Might You Mean May?”

  1. Randy B. says:

    Regarding the e-newsletter “Might You Mean May,” this opened my eyes as to the (lack of) difference between the two words. I had always thought that “may” is used when permission is an issue, and “might” is used when permission is not an issue. The question “May I have another slice of pie?” is asking permission, while “Might (Can/Should) I have another slice of pie?” is a rhetorical question one would ask oneself. Yet the issue of permission was not even mentioned in the article.

    • Our recent article was about may vs. might. May vs. can is a different topic, which we covered a while back. You will find it here.

      For upper-crust Brits, and even some high-born Americans, “Might I have another slice of pie” is not uncommon; the use of might is considered a very polite alternative to may.

  2. David says:

    Maybe the pseudo-orthodoxy about may and might expressing different degrees of probability comes from the past-tense hypothetical issue you raise:

    “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.”

    This is the guideline that seems to be increasingly violated these days, and it’s confusing. People seem to suggest that something may actually have happened, when they mean to say that it might have happened if things had gone differently. Folks write things like, “Had Henry VIII had sons, he may not have disposed of so many wives.” Okay, that’s a made up example, but one sees this kind of thing all the time. I find it jarring, but clearly a lot of people don’t. Sigh. I’m getting old.

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *