June 17, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: May or might & as such

Posted in as such, may or might at 8:00 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: May or might?

A reader writes:

When I was a kid, I learned that people used the word ‘may’ to connote permission and ‘might’ was used to connote possibility. But I hear people using them interchangeably these days. Does that distinction no longer apply?

Well, yes and no. ‘May,’ rather than ‘might,’ is still used to connote permission.

You may not eat dessert before you eat your vegetables.

However, both ‘may’ and ‘might’ are used to connote possibility.

I may go to the gym after work.

She might be the next to obtain tenure in the department.

That’s the easy answer. However, as we have repeatedly learned, when talking about language, there is no such thing as simple.

There are those who make a distinction between ‘might’ and ‘may’ based on how sure the possibility is, that is, if something is likely or a probability, ‘may’ should be the word choice, and when something is a long shot or even doubtful, then ‘might’ should be used.

He may be the most well known expert in the field. (Meaning: he probably is.)

If everything goes perfectly, he might be able to pitch a perfect game. (Meaning: don’t hold your breath.)

I am not sure that most of us really discern the subtlety of this distinction when we use these words, but some readers do, so it’s good to keep in mind.

There are those who believe that the words are synonymous when referring to future events, but are distinct when referring to past events, with ‘might’ connoting more finality than ‘may.’

The secondary data analysis may have been the part of the proposal that was problematic for reviewers. (Meaning: it’s a possibility, but we really don’t know.)

If they had worn their life preservers, they might have survived the craft overturning. (Meaning: there is a possibility they could have survived, but they didn’t.)

Of course, there are those who use ‘might’ as the past tense of ‘may,’ and they don’t think that ‘may’ should ever be used to connote past events. I don’t agree; I think ‘may have’ is fine as is ‘might have’ to refer to events in the past.

To avoid any more confusion, I am going to stop here. Let me just sum up my rules for using ‘may’ and ‘might.’

1. You can’t go wrong, using ‘might.’

2. Don’t use ‘may’ if there is the possibility of confusion whether you are referring to permission or possibility.

I was going to add an additional rule about sentences using the past tense and containing other verbs (use ‘might’), but I think these two rules and maybe even just rule 1, will get you through any writing task.

Tip 2: As such

The physicians in our clinic see more than 5,000 unique patients each month. As such, we will be able to accrue our proposed sample of 7,500 patients with no difficulty.

I will explain why ‘as such’ is incorrectly used, here. However, the take-away message is not to use ‘as such’ correctly, but not to use it all.

When using ‘as such,’ a noun or noun phrase antecedent is required. You should be able to replace the word ‘such’ with this noun or noun phrase and maintain the meaning of the writing.

If you try to do this with the sentences above, it doesn’t work. None of the nouns-‘physicians,’ ‘clinic,’ ‘patients,’ or month’-can replace ‘such’ and maintain the meaning.

The author of the above writing made a very common mistake, and that is to use ‘as such’ to mean ‘thus’ or ‘therefore.’ It doesn’t; it means ‘in itself’ or ‘per se.’

To make the sentence above work, we need to revise it a bit.

Our clinic is home to more than 5,000 unique patient visits monthly. As such, the clinic is an appropriate site for accruing the 7,500 patients in our sample.

So why do I recommend you don’t use it all? Mainly, because it is such a weak phrase, and it is used incorrectly so often that it has been rendered, in large part, meaningless. There are better and more precise words that can replace it, but often, it can just be eliminated with no loss to your writing; in fact, it can contribute to increased clarity. For example,

Our clinic is home to more than 5,000 unique patient visits monthly and is an appropriate site for accruing the 7,500 patients in our sample.

Shorter, more straightforward, stronger, better.

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