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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a quick post asking for your opinions on Philip Corbett’s contention that may and might both express possibility, but that might is used when the possibility is less likely. For example, the work in (1a) is more likely to get done than in (1b):

(1a) If I can distract the kittens, I may be able to get my work done.
(1b) If I can distract the kittens, I might be able to get my work done.

I had never heard this before, and I didn’t find it to be the case in my own usages, so I posed the question to you all, and you didn’t disappoint. Nor did you agree. Three commenters concurred with Corbett about the difference, with may being more probable than might. One felt that the difference was one of involvement, that might suggests the subject is somehow more involved in the action than may. Two thought that the difference was one of formality, but one thought that may was more formal and the other thought it was less. And at least three agreed with me that there wasn’t any clear difference.

I think Bob Hale nailed it in his comment when he wrote

“My usage of “may” and “might” probably doesn’t correspond exactly to your usage of “may” and “might” or to anyone else’s. I don’t think it’s consistent for an individual and it certainly isn’t consistent between individuals.”

It is worth noting that no one felt that might was more probable than may, so maybe there is a grain of truth to Corbett’s contention, but that grain is drowned out by the overwhelming muddle.

Summary: may and might should be regarded as essentially interchangeable, because different people don’t agree on what the difference between them would be.

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I come to you with a deep sense of confusion. I read today’s post at the After Deadline blog at the New York Times, and the crux of it is that there is a subtle difference between might and may when they’re expressing possibilities. For instance, compare (1a) and (1b):

(1a) I may build a gravy fountain.
(1b) I might build a gravy fountain.

I’m not sure I see a significant difference between these two sentences. I believe I use may and might more or less interchangeably, and I suspect I use might more than I use may. Then again, maybe I don’t; I was about to write a sentence starting “post-modernists might argue X”, and in that sentence I would definitely, at the present moment, find may a poor substitute. This may be due to my relative certainty in the sentence; I am saying that I suspect that the post-modernists would argue X, not merely that they could argue X. And then, in the sentence I just wrote, I strongly prefer may to might, because I am less sure that the relative certainty is to blame. So, in summary, if there is a sustained difference between may and might for me, it’s that may expresses less certainty than might does — but I am not confident that I or the average English speaker consistently distinguishes between the two.

Some of my doubt has been sown by Philip Corbett, the After Deadline blogger, who favors precisely the opposite distinction. He writes:

“Trouble arises mainly when “may” and “might” convey possibility. Both words can carry this meaning, but there’s a difference in nuance. “May” simply states the possibility or likelihood, while “might” emphasizes the conditional nature of the possibility, introducing a greater level of uncertainty.

He may go to the theater tonight (stating the possibility).
He might go to the theater tonight (raising some doubt).”

It sounds in his post like Corbett has run an informal poll of some of the Times’ editors before reaching this conclusion, so I’m inclined to give it some credence. But, out of competitiveness and a gnawing curiosity if my usage is exactly backward, I wonder, first, whether there is any consensus amongst English speakers on this matter, and second, which one of us is closer to the consensus if it exists. What do you think? Is there a difference between may and might in sentences like these? If there is, is it one of likelihood or some other dimension(s)? How separated, if at all, are the two in your mind?

Post your opinion in the comments, and I’ll compile the results at the end of the week in a follow-up post. Then we’ll see whether it’s me or Corbett who has his finger well off the pulse of modern usage. (Of course, if it is me, I’ll bury the results in some rambling exposition on case assignment so that no one will ever find it.)

[Update: I forgot to add the link to the follow-up post. Here it is.]

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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