may/might confusion

Johnson, Ellen ejohnson at BERRY.EDU
Thu Jan 17 21:36:56 UTC 2002

Although might could was once my only acceptable double modal, I find myself saying may can more and more.  but then, I'm younger than you!  still in Ron's under-45 age group, in fact.  Ellen

-----Original Message-----
From: Dennis R. Preston [mailto:preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU]
Sent: Thursday, January 17, 2002 3:42 PM
Subject: Re: may/might confusion

Certainly not for me. I can say 'might could' but have never been
able to say 'may can.'


>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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