Lynne Murphy lynnem at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK
Thu Jan 20 13:52:01 UTC 2000

Bibiana Ogando asked:

> Can you tell me the difference between May and Might?
> Are they the same?
> Do you prefer one of them?
> Or do you use them in certain situations?

A nice, rather simple discussion of modals is in Thomas R. Hofmann's textbook
_Realms of Meaning_.  Another (less detailed) is in John Saeed's _Semantics_.

Anyhow, there are lots of places that you can use 'might' but can't use 'may'.
'Might' is used for counterfactual,  subjunctive-y things, and the like, and for
indirect speech.  'Might' is also 'past tense' (to whatever degree a modal can
have a tense) of 'may'.  For example:

Indirect speech:  He said he might/?may go soon.
Counterfactual subjunctive:  She wishes that she might/#may someday win.
Past perfect?:  He might have said something about it, but I don't remember.
(vs. present perfect 'may have'?  I'm not really sure about this.)

But the indirect/past versions of modals can also be polite forms of the
base modals.  (Which makes a lot of sense--making the meaning more tenative/
indirect.)  So, you can use both 'may' and 'might' in requests and statements
of intention, but the 'might' version is always more tentative.

I may/might go.
May/Might I have some?

The difference between them is especially clear for the following, where 'may'
is interpreted as giving of permission, but the 'might' form is interpreted as
a suggestion.

You may try this dip.  (Depending on the tone/situation, can be rude.)
You might try this dip.  (Depending on the tone, can sound like a wimpy

Now, there may/might be some dialectal differences.  It seems like only some
people would use 'might' in situations like 'Might I...?' and 'Might you...?'

Rambling thoughts,

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