"New device may have prevented tragedies"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jan 28 02:40:05 UTC 2002

Today's lead headline of the New Haven Register reads as above, in a
rather large font.  And in case you weren't sure (I wasn't), it does
indeed involve the "new" sort of counterfactual/subjunctive "may"
we've been discussing.  The subhead is "Hospital deaths avoidable,
doc says", and the article begins:
    A new method of making sure that sedated patients are breathing
might have averted this months's dual tragedy, experts say.  Two
women undergoing cardiac catheterization at St. Raphael's died in
mid-January when they were inadvertently given anesthesia rather than
oxygen.  A lunchbox-sized device called a capnograph possibly could
have warned doctors and nurses sooner that the two women were not
receiving enough air, a prominent physician said.
[Note the switch to "could" in the text of the article.]
I know subjunctive "may" has been spreading, much to the
consternation of some of us crypto-prescriptivists (I regret not
being able to use may vs. might to illustrate an important semantic
distinction), but to see it in a 3 inch headline is sobering indeed.
Reminds me of when I first came across the following, in a headline
of the Boston Herald sports section in 1971:

Colts Want This One?
So Don't the Pats


P.S.   I wonder how long it will take before someone recalls the
Marlon Brando line from On the Waterfront as "I may uh been a

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