I wish I may, I wish I might

A reader asks for clarification on “may” and “might.” The best advice I have found on this issue comes from two books, “The Careful Writer” by Theodore M. Bernstein and “Woe Is I” by Patricia T. O’Conner.

Both writers point out that, grammatically, “might” is the past tense of “may.” But both words can be used in the present tense. “May,” Bernstein writes, “poses a possibility; might adds a greater degree of uncertainty to the possibility.” (p. 271, 1983 edition) So “I may get a raise” means that I am more likely to see more money in my paycheck than “I might get a raise” suggests. O’Conner has a good, clear example. “A bulletproof vest may have saved him” indicates that he was saved. But “A bulletproof vest might have saved him” implies that he was not saved. (p. 60)

O’Conner also points out, though, that if other verbs in the sentence are in past tense, only “might” is right. “She thought she might have broken a leg,” not “may.” Perhaps this is where we make the mistake most often.

So, in the simplest terms, if we say “he may arrive tonight,” we mean that his arrival tonight is likely, but if we say, “he might arrive tonight,” we mean that his arrival tonight is less likely. There is a shade of difference.

Of course, one of the first grammar rules I remember is the distinction between “may” and “can.” As my mother and others told me, “may” means permission, and “can” means ability. So I may go to the fair with my parents’ permission, but whether I can go to the fair depends on my physical capability.

Here are a couple of Web sites that discuss “may” and “might.” The American Heritage Book of English Usage and Dr. Grammar, the late James Hiduke’s site.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.