Student Stumper 21: May vs. Might

QUESTION: Is it true that the only difference between MAY and MIGHT is that MAY is stronger?

ANSWER: 

Yes, but only when we’re talking about possibilities. I may get my work done early if I don’t run into any trouble. This suggests it’s possible that I’ll finish early. Compare: If the computer screen stops freezing every five minutes, I might get this work done today. This suggests that finishing the work is a possibility but not a very strong one.

However, does the meaning change significantly in either example if we switch MAY and MIGHT? I’d argue no. In many sentences that express a low degree of likelihood, any meaning difference between these two modal verbs is so minor that students shouldn’t worry over making an incorrect choice. It’s fine to note the commonly recognized difference in degree between MAY and MIGHT, but I think what’s more important to explain is:

  • MAY changes to MIGHT in reported speech to indicate something said in the past:

 “I may go out later,” said Peter.  – Peter said that he might go out later.

  • MAY is used for permission (not MIGHT)

May I ask you a personal question?

Visitors may not park in numbered spaces. Only residents may do so.

  • MAY can also be substituted with CAN in some situations. Greenbaum and Quirk note that when this is possible, CAN is considered the less formal of the two[1] (Students should be aware of how relatively rare MAY is used in everyday spoken English.)

May/ Can I ask you a personal question?

Visitors may not/ can’t park in numbered spaces. Only residents may do so/ can.

Whales may be seen in these waters in the summer months./ Whales can be seen around here in the summertime.

  • MAY, MIGHT, and COULD can all be used in to express a low degree of certainty, with the last two being favored in conversation.

You know something, you may be right./ you might be right./ you could be right.

Biber, Conrad, and Leech note that in this case, could expresses the most doubt.[2]


[1] Greenbaum and Quirk. A Student’s Grammar of the English Language. Longman: 1995. P.61.

[2]  Biber, Conrad, and Leech. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson Education: 2002. P.179.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Nina Liakos says:

    I disagree that may is stronger than might when they are used to mean possibility. Students have told me this, I have read it somewhere, but I think I can truly say that I do not distinguish between “I may go” and “I might go”. I think I could interchange may and might in your two examples without changing the sense.

    Perhaps this subtle differences is dialectal?

  2. Richard Gallant says:

    You say: “MAY is used for permission (not MIGHT)”, BUT,

    “Might I ask you a question” or a similar use of “might” is used in British English.

    Thanks for your great work Jennifer! I steer my students to your YouTube videos, and it’s been good to follow you at Pearson.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      You’re very right to point out differences between American and British English in this case. An American would understand the request: “Might I ask you a question?” But it could be perceived as formal and maybe even old-fashioned. I sometimes refer to a copy of Greenbaum and Quirk’s grammar book (A Students’ Grammar of the English Language, 1995). The example listed for “might” reflects my suspicion about Americans’ comprehension of this modal used to express permission The authors list: “Might I ask whether you are using the typewriter?” (p.61) In any American workplace in 2010, a co-worker would more likely ask, “Is the computer free? Can I (Could I/ May I) use it?”

      I checked some stats offered by Biber, Conrad, and Leech (Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English). On one page (p.177) they show the frequency of modals. “Will” ranks highest, “may” is in the middle, and “might” is only more frequent than “shall”. Then (p.179) they show the frequency of permission/ possibility modals in conversation and academic use. For permission, “may” a least appears in the ranking, but it’s not nearly as high as “can” in spoken English. The authors observe that “could” and “might” are used most often to express possibility.

      For me, modals are extremely challenging to teach at the higher levels. I have yet to tackle them on YouTube. (Right now I’m fighting another dragon: articles.)

      Thanks for posting your comment!

  3. Bill says:

    You can park there, but you may not. If you do, you might get a parking ticket.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I’d suggest replacing “may” with “shouldn’t” to indicate that it’s possible but not advisable:
      You can park there, but you really shouldn’t. If you do, you might get a parking ticket.
      I think it would also be natural to say, “You can park there, but I wouldn’t if I were you. If you do, you might get a parking ticket.”
      What do you think?

  4. Bill says:

    In actual speech, I might prefer shouldn’t too, but I was trying to make a point.

    You can park there, but you may not.

    It’s a contrived example, but this sentence stands alone. It informs the audience that parking is disallowed by some authority. So the following sentence is almost redundant (it does imply the type of authority), because it only elucidates a potential consequence that could be inferred anyway.

    The proposed revision is more ambiguous, because it only indicates inadvisability. It implies a broader category of reasons for the admonition. E.g., it might annoy the neighbors, it’s near a dangerous intersection, it’s under the mulberry tree, etc.

    Use of the word may in this example is more precise and thus more informative.

    I was taught that the use of the word may should be reserved for indicating permission. But contemporary common usage is not so (“BRIDGE MAY BE ICY”). This has crept into my own speech, and the osmosis grates on my nerd sensibilities.

    Precise usage underpins concise speech.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      So true, Bill, that old rules and current usage don’t always agree. There’s a gray area we have to help learners navigate. Context helps. Stress patterns, too. For example, “Well,” you say to your friend who wants to park in a towing zone, “you can park wherever you want. You can even leave it right here. No one is around to stop you. But the sign says ‘No Parking’, which means you may not. So don’t be surprised if you get a ticket or if they tow your car away.”

      I sympathize with the osmosis experience. In informal conversation, I catch myself breaking rules I was taught back in elementary school.

      Thanks for posting your comment.

      1. Bill says:

        Brevity is clarity. Timeless.

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