"New device may have prevented tragedies"

sagehen sagehen at WESTELCOM.COM
Mon Jan 28 20:49:27 UTC 2002

"New device may have prevented tragedies"

This is a beautiful example of  may/might confusion that produces a very
bad result. We read the headline & think, "Whew!  tragedy averted; glad to
hear it," and move on to the next item.

In the case of  "Colts Want This One? >So Don't the Pats,"at least  the
ambiguity (if not opacity) leads us to check the text to see what's meant.
A. Murie

Original Message:
>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
...or, "Of all sad words of mouth or pen,
        The saddest are these:  It may have been."

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