Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 20 23:25:49 UTC 2000

>Andrea's anecdote looks like another symptom of the apparent breakdown of
>the distinction between indicative "may" and subjunctive "might" (the
>latest [?] manifestation of the breakdown of the modal verb system in
>English, and probably also a manifestation of the decay of the subjunctive).
>There was a discussion on this list awhile back in which some of us vented
>our helpless rage at this phenomenon, in which the subjunctive "might"
>seems to have simply disappeared for many speakers.  Thus you hear
>sentences like the following (hypothetical examples) all the time on radio
>and TV newscasts: "If she hadn't been pulled from the water in the nick of
>time, she may have drowned."  Or: "If the paramedics hadn't given him CPR,
>he may have been dead by now."  As I recall, one list member from England
>indicated that the use of "might" in such contexts would be completely
>foreign to him.
Right, we did discuss this a while back, and I was one of the helpless
ragers, despite my anti-prescriptivist sympathies.  MAY is foreign to me in
these 'subjunctive', counterfactual contexts, but I've noticed through
years of teaching semantics classes (in the U.S.) that it's increasingly
acceptable for younger speakers (whose number grows more and more legion
every year...).

I think the "rule" Andrea was informed of, to the effect that MAY (only)
means permission, is one of those oversimplified dichotomies that makes
some editors feel good without having any basis in either usage or
diachrony.  "You may attend Harvard, for all I know" (epistemic) and "You
may attend Harvard, for all  I care" (deontic) have both been robust usages
for hundreds of years and are likely to remain so for hundreds more.


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