July 30, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: might or may with a little can

Posted in can, may, might at 6:28 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I’ve just been going over an excellent review of a manuscript that one of our fellows wrote, and I found myself replacing “may” with “might” throughout, because “might” sounded better to me, where we are making suggestions to an author. But when I went online to try to justify my feeling, most of what I found was not helpful. Here are a couple of examples, and I’d like to know a. if you agree with me, and b. whether this is a question worth addressing in WLUT.

It may strengthen the argument to place the last lines of paragraph 3… etc…

, the authors may want to mention here the importance of investigation of stakeholder attitudes …

(In each of these cases, I substituted “might” for the “may” that I found offensive, but I’ll be darned if I can justify it other than saying it sounds better.)

‘Might’ sounds better to my old ears, too. Not that I’m saying that our reader is old, but I willingly admit that I am. I find that being ‘of a certain age’ is, in many ways, awesome. But that’s another discussion, for another day. As a kid, I learned that ‘may’ brings with it the notion of permission. “Mother, may I?” comes to mind. So, I tended to reserve it for those occasions that are associated with asking for or giving permission. And furthermore, the use of ‘may’ related to permission is usually seen when the question is whether to use ‘may’ or ‘can.’ In the olden days, we used ‘can’ to indicate ability (I can run faster than you can) and ‘may’ when asking permission (may I go the movies after school?). While ‘can’ can still indicate ability, it is often also used to indicate permission (can I borrow that book when you are done with it?). The only difference, these days, is that ‘may’ is considered to be more formal than ‘can.’

When it comes to ‘may’ or ‘might,’ there is another distinction. Both ‘may’ and ‘might’ are associated with possibility:

If it stops raining, I may go to the picnic.

If the rain stops, I might check out the baseball game.

But ‘might’ is associated with more uncertainty, some doubt.

I might go to the dance if everyone else is going.

If you help him with his homework, he might like you more.

But this distinction is fading, and ultimately, the words may be used synonymously.

So for the reader’s example, keeping in mind that with ‘might,’ there is more doubt, the fellow is absolutely correct in using ‘may.’

So as to the readers questions a) do you agree – no

b) is it worth discussing in the WLUT?

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