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The Definite Guide to “May vs. Might”

The Definite Guide to “May vs. Might”

The difference between may and might is one that even native speakers may sometimes find themselves struggling with. This is mostly because they are different forms of the same word.

With such similar meanings, it can be difficult to explain why to use which form of what word and in what context. Native speakers may feel they intuitively know the correct word to use in context without knowing exactly why.

Luckily, there are some hard and fast rules for choosing whether your sentence calls for may or might that can help clear up this confusion for speakers of all levels.
 

May Vs Might

 

What is the difference between may and might?

Both may and might are modal auxiliary verbs expressing that something could happen or could have happened. The context in which each of these auxiliary, or helper, verbs should be used entirely depends on the main verbs they are modifying. May is largely used in sentences expressing factual or possible things, while might is typically used for hypothetical or less probable sentiments.

 

Past and Present

Technically speaking, might is actually the past form of the word may. The usage of these words, however, has evolved greatly over the years.

I may go to Disney World. I might have gone to Disney World.

I may take a nap. I might have taken a nap.

Deciding whether to use may or might in a specific sentence is more complex than using might for past and may for the present, due to their functionality as modal auxiliary verbs.

For example, you will not want to use may in the present and might in the past every single time you are deciding which to use. As previously mentioned, may implies more certainty than might, which leaves more room for doubt.

Additionally, while the usage of both may and might is considered to make a sentiment significantly more polite, might is usually considered the more formal of the two. In situations in which you wish to be moderately but not overly polite, you’ll want to use may instead of might.

This largely complicates the issue when you are forced to consider the certainty, tense, and level of courteousness you are trying to impart to your sentiment.

However, when in doubt, this rule is likely to be the most useful for determining if you should use may or might.

When deciding which word to use, there are a few rules of thumb you should try to follow.

 

The actual differences are a little more complex

When it comes down to it, the circumstances in which one would use may or might are so complex and specific that they can be difficult to learn. Many native speakers struggle with these auxiliary verbs and use them interchangeably.

The only way to begin using them correctly is by memorizing some hard and fast usage rules. To start with, let’s take a look at some scenarios in which one would use may.

 

When do I use may?

 

When an event is more than likely to occur

If you have a good feeling that something is going to happen, although you are leaving room for uncertainty, you can use may.

Mary has been late for lunch these last three weeks, so she may be late today.

While you cannot be entirely sure that this event will occur, you should use your best judgment in order to determine if it is likely when deciding if may is appropriate in this scenario.

 

When making slightly formal requests or giving permission

May is used when answering affirmatively to a request for permission or denying said request for permission. Additionally, it should also be used when asking for permission.

In this instance, using may implies that you are, or are not, allowed to do something, or you are asking if you are allowed to do something.

In fact, you’ve likely experienced a polite refusal when asking permission to use the bathroom as a child.

Can I go to the bathroom?
I don’t know, can you?
May I go to the bathroom?

Using may is considered polite and is typically used when asking for permission to do something, and should be used when asking if you are allowed to do something.

This is perhaps the usage of may that most speakers are familiar with due to the aforementioned example. Speakers are taught from a young age not to ask if they can do something – this is not asking for permission, but asking if you are able to do something.

The smart quip implies the listener does not know if you are able to do what you asked, but they would likely be able to answer any questions regarding whether or not you are allowed to do something.

Because of this example, most native speakers are familiar with using may in scenarios that call for more formality or polite speech.

May I please be excused?
May I ask you a question?

Again, the expectation of likelihood exists here. In these scenarios, the teacher or host is unlikely to deny your request to go to the bathroom or be excused, but you are making a point to demonstrate good manners and show respect by adding may to these requests.

 

When you are expressing hope

If you are wishing someone a certain fate, positive or otherwise, or wishing a fate upon yourself, it is appropriate to use may.

May the odds be ever in your favor.
May a curse reign down on you.

Using may in this way expresses a hope that something will happen. In this instance, the degree to which you are certain the event is probable is irrelevant.

Similarly, you can use may in this way to express things you wish would happen and not just hopes.

I wish I may get a Nintendo Switch for Christmas!

 

When talking about things that usually happen

If discussing things are likely to or usually occur as the direct result of another circumstance, one should use may. This is usually used when discussing cause and effect.

Some side effects may include nausea.
You may find yourself feeling more tired than usual.

This is usually used in an academic or scientific context in which facts can be used to back up an assertion. These are things that have been known to occur and are likely to occur again int he future.

Those using may in this way likely have some sort of authoritative background which will convince listeners they know what they are talking about, as it also implies a likelihood of an event occurring.

 

When do I use might?

 

When an event is less likely to occur

Might should be used when there is a possibility of the event occurring, but there likely isn’t a probability of it occurring.

Mark hasn’t shown up to work the last three days but he still might come today.
I’m not really feeling well but I just might stop by.

Again, there should be a possibility of something happening in order to necessitate the use of the word might. However, the probability does not have to be very high at all.

When speaking to someone about something you are uncertain of, using might implies either the speaker is hoping against hope and evidence to the contrary. It could also mean the speaker is attempting to express extreme doubt regarding an event’s probability of occurring, so listeners should pay attention to the context in which the speaker is using it as well as their tone of voice.

 

When using extremely formal politeness

As with may, one can also use might when making formal, polite requests. However, the tone of these requests is often much more formal than those made with may.

Might I please have a spot of tea?
Might you please scooch over just a tad?

If you feel like you’re having a conversation with the Queen of England when using might, you’re using it right.

Because this usage of might is so formal, speakers should take care not to sound flippant when expressing themselves in this way. Taking the earlier example, speakers who ask of their teachers:

Might I use the restroom?

will likely receive a raised eyebrow and doubtful expression in return. Take extra care to judge the circumstances in order to determine if they truly call for might over may, especially when may is typically considered to be formal enough in most scenarios.

 

When making a suggestion

Might is correct when attempting to make a polite suggestion. Again, this is a more formal way of interjecting and is typically not used in casual conversation.

This usage of might is likely to occur when someone in a serving position is speaking to you.

Might I suggest the braised beef and house red pairing?
You might prefer the far bedroom as it is located away from the kitchen and other noisier areas of the home.

 

When expressing annoyance

Using might in this way implies annoyance and unwillingness to compromise. The speaker is unwilling to let go of a certain amount of doubt and uncertainty while implying the listener has prematurely destroyed all doubt.

I might have studied abroad if I hadn’t had to put myself through college.
I might have made it as an actor I had just caught a break.

 

Are may and might interchangeable?

 

When expressing possibility

What one person thinks is possible or probable is not necessarily what everyone thinks, as anyone who has ever gotten into an argument knows.

In fact, someone’s usage of may or might in a conversation can prove to be a good indicator of the degree to which they are in agreement with you.

Tom may swing on by for a quick visit after his flight lands tomorrow.
Yeah, he might, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. You know how Tom is.

 

When being polite

The similarity of the usage of may and might when being polite is just one of the factors that results in their usage being confused. They come near to being interchangeable in this instance, as judging the degree of formality can be extremely subjective.

May I just take a look in your closet to see if our sweaters got mixed up in the wash?
Might I peruse through your closet in order to confirm my sweater is indeed unaccounted for?

One’s likelihood to use may or might in these scenarios likely comes down to personal preference and degree of comfort with formal speech.

 

When modifying have

As modal auxiliary verbs, the way may and might interact with have can have an impact on its meaning. When speaking about past events, your usage of may or might with have is determined by how sure you are of an event having occurred or not.

 

Uncertain if an event has occurred

In the event that you’re uncertain about a past occurrence and you are using may or might in order to modify have, may and might become interchangeable.

Kevin may have eaten your last cookie.
Kevin might have eaten your last cookie.

 

Certain a past even has not occurred

If, however, you are certain a past event has not occurred, might is more technically correct.

Because may implies a strong probability, using may when you know an event has not happened can come off as disingenuous.

Kevin may have eaten your last cookie.

This sentence now sounds closer to a lie, as you are still implying there is a likely chance this occurred.

Using might, however, acknowledges some degree for human error or misunderstanding, but heavily implies that you do not believe it is so.

Kevin might have eaten your last cookie.

Now there is room for doubt. As a speaker, you are closer to expressing a degree of disbelief when stating things this way.

 

May as well vs. might as well

In this instance, may and might are largely interchangeable.

You may as well take the garbage out when you leave.
You might as well take the garbage out when you leave.

In either instance, either may or might is acceptable.

However, if you are intending to use the phrase when discussing something that did not occur, you’ll likely want to use might.

He thought he might as well have taken a chance and asked out his crush, as he would have ended up moving the following year.

This is because, in this instance, the rule of using might for past sentiments overtakes any other rule. When in doubt, and when not in direct conflict with any other known rule regarding may and might, it is best to default to the past and present rule.

 

May vs. Might: Use your best judgment

It is highly possible that you will be faced with several of these circumstances at once when attempting to formulate a sentence that necessitates the usage of may or might.

For example, the sentence might be in the past tense, meaning you’d likely want to choose might. However, you could be mostly uncertain of the probability of what you’re talking about, meaning you’d lean toward may. But what if you’re attempting to be more formal? Notably, the situation would normally call for the usage of might over the usage of may.

In these situations, there is no hard and fast rule determining which word you should choose to use. In fact, as previously mentioned, many style guides do not fully hold writers to the aforementioned general rules of thumb regarding may and might.

In these instances, it is advisable to use your best judgment in order to avoid seemingly awkward-sounding phrasing.

 

May vs. Might: Wrapping it all up

You may think it is best to err on the side of caution and stick to rules such as these which will help to eliminate the complications of remembering which word to use when.

However, many reputable sources present conflicting information as to the circumstances when may and might are interchangeable.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionaries list may and might as remaining interchangeable, regardless of whether or not the truth of a specific situation is known.

Therefore, even if you lose track of the suggested usage of each word, it is not necessarily true that you will be called out on it. Some reputable sources may not even determine you have made an error.

For native speakers, this likely means that they will be able to sound out which word sounds best in each scenario.

For non-native speakers, the issue remains slightly more complicated. When in doubt, non-native speakers would do well to stick to the hard and fast rules.