may/might confusion

Johnson, Ellen ejohnson at BERRY.EDU
Thu Jan 17 18:53:17 UTC 2002

do you think there is a concomitant shift to "may can" from "might could"?  I think so.  Ellen

Ellen Johnson
Assistant Professor of Linguistics
Dept. of English, Rhetoric, and Writing
Berry College, Box 350
Mt. Berry, GA 30149
ejohnson at

Ron Butters:
There has been a lot written about the merger of MAY and MIGHT, but for many
people this seems to be a done deal. I know, it is hard to understand how a
distinction that seems so natural and clear to ME simply does not register
with most educated Americans under the age of 45 or so (and even older in the
case of such folks as Ashcroft). I don't even remember, as a youth, having
had anyone point out to me that there was such a distinction--it seems to me
to have always been a part of my linguistic "competence." So my gut reaction
is that this is not something like the prescriptivist SHALL/WILL distinction,
which has been preserved largely only in textbooks (but cf. "Shall I
castigate the evil doers?" vs. "Will I castigate the evil doers?"); there is
really a linguistic change in progress here, and it is inevitable and well on
its way to completion. MAY is replacing MIGHT in virtually all environments,
though MIGHT still exists for such speakers as a free variant in some

I think this is a linguistic change that is at least as important as the
extension of invariant BE, though it is scarcely mentioned in the
sociolinguistic literature.

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