May or Might?

Why not? Let’s tempt the giant in the land of verbs and see if we can’t begin to sort out the difference between these two difficult words in English, may and might. Should I write, for example, you may remember that he lived in Spain for a few years after college, or you might remember? Let’s begin by recalling some basics about verbs.

When a verb has a subject, as both may and might do here (you), it is called a finite verb, finite meaning specific, and therefore specific as to the person or thing which is undertaking the action of the verb. Finite verbs have five properties, one of which is called mood, which tells the reader the manner in which the verb is making its assertion: as fact, called the indicative mood; as a command, called the imperative mood; or as a supposition, which is not a fact in the world, but an assumption we hold true in our minds for a while in order to think things out. A supposition, or hypothesis, has its verb in the subjunctive mood.

Now it is the indicative and subjunctive moods which concern us here, for may and might can each be either indicative or subjunctive, depending upon whether the writer intends to state or suppose a fact. That is probably the most important idea to remember, because many of us were taught that these two words always work as auxiliary verbs to mark the subjunctive mood. That is not correct. An auxiliary verb supplies power (think of auxiliary troops) to an already existing principal verb, and when may or might act as auxiliaries, as they often properly do, they mean to convey the ideas of wish or a possibility with some degree of doubt. Sometimes, though, these same two verbs convey the ideas of permission or real and likely possibility, in which case they are the principal verb of the clause and stand in the indicative mood.

You’ll remember I began by saying that we were going to be tempting a grammatical giant with this topic. The difficulty in all of this lies both in the subtleties of our perceptions and the craft of our language. If I say that he renewed his passport, so he may now travel out of the country, the verb may stands in the indicative mood, because it intends to assert the fact of having permission: the subject he is in fact permitted now to travel (the additional verb travel works to complete the idea of permission and is called a complementary infinitive). If I say that he may go to Spain again this year, the verb may is likewise in the indicative mood, because I mean to say that there is in fact the real possibility that he will be going. Put either of these factual assertions in the past tense, and may simply changes to might: he told me he might now travel outside the country.

But—if my intention is to say that a friend of mine renewed his passport and now has some wish to travel (rather than actual permission or likely intent to travel), then the very same words, understood grammatically differently, convey an entirely different idea: he renewed his passport, so he may now travel out of the country could mean he’s thinking of traveling out of the country. Under this alternative interpretation, the verb may stands as an auxiliary verb to the principal verb travel, and its function marks the idea of wish or doubtful possibility, both of which are notions requiring the subjunctive mood. Likewise, if I said that he might have trouble arranging a trip to Spain this year, the verb might is here auxiliary to the principal verb have, it too serving to denote some smaller degree of possibility.

Sometimes the context will guide us to the best interpretation, sometimes the tone of our voice, and sometimes just our own close and careful grammatical analysis with a sharp eye on the context. Who knew that giants could be so—crafty?


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