May vs Might


When to Use 'May' and 'Might'

The modals May and Might often have a similar meaning when we talk about possibility; might is considerably more uncertain than may. However, we prefer may in academic or formal settings to express characteristics or behavior, as the following example illustrate.

  • The seeds from the plant may grow up to 20 centimetres in length.

When dealing with speech we prefer might to say what we will possibly do in the future. Survey the example below.

  • He might take sick leave and visits the hospital.

In talking about possible situations, we also use may or might interchangeably to talk about possible situations in the present time (may) or in the past (might).

Present tense:
  • We hope that he may win the prize.
Past tense:
  • We had hoped that he might have won the prize.

In the past tense might can be used without giving it a second thought. But the present tense is trickier. Might suggests at least a hint of doubt in comparison to its companion word may.

If I say “I might do that,” I imply that I am less likely to do it than if I say, “I may do that.”

To put it another way, might suggests might not in a way that may does not suggest may not.

Important Hint!  

Note that we normally don’t use may to ask questions about the possibility of something happening. Instead we use, for example, could(n’t) or the phrase be likely. Survey the following examples:

  • Could it be that you don’t want to leave? (NOT May it be that you …?)
  • Are you likely to be in Canada again this summer? (NOT May you be in Canada … ?)

It is possible to use might in this type of question, but it is rather formal, as the following sentence illustrate:

  • Might they be persuaded to change their minds?

Note also that we can use may in formally asking for permission and offering help, as:

  • May I leave now?
  • May I help you?

Might (NOT ‘may’) + bare infinitive is sometimes used to talk about what was typically the case in the past. This is considered a formal or academic use. Ponder the following examples:

  • During the military era, the police might arrest you for criticizing the government.
  • Years ago children might be sent down mines at the age of six. (passive form)

We can also use could + bare infinitive in certain contexts like this to talk about past ability:

  • 'During the military era, the police could arrest you …’
    → (means that the police were legally able to arrest you.)

We can use may / might (NOT ‘can’) + have + past participle and may / might (NOT ‘can’) + be + –ing to talk about possible events in the past, present and future. Survey the example sentences below.

  • Do you think Laurel may / might have completed the report by now? (past)
  • His maths may / might have improved by the time the exam comes around. (future)
  • Samba isn’t in his office. He may / might be working at home today. (present)
  • When I go to Memphis I may / might be staying with John, but I’m not sure yet. (future)

Note that in constructions like the above sentences, could can be used in place of may or might:

  • Do you think Laurel could have completed the report by now?

Likewise, we can use may / might have been + –ing to express possible situations or actions that went on over a period of time in the past:

  • Benjamin didn’t know where the piano was, but he thought his brother might have been practicing with it before he left for school.
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