Might or May?

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Might or May?

What is the difference between "might" and "may"?

"Might" and "may" can be used interchangeably when they express the idea of possibility. However, here are three considerations:
  • (1) Many English speakers treat "may" as more likely than "might." For example:
    • Sarah may be present at the party. John might be present too.
    • (Some people will consider Sarah's presence more likely than John's.)
  • (2) Be aware that "may" can express the idea of permission. When this creates ambiguity, use "might." For example:
    • Sarah may use the swimming pool.
    • (Does this mean "Sarah might use the swimming pool" or does it mean "Sarah is permitted to use the swimming pool"? When such ambiguity exists and you're seeking to express the idea of possibility, use "might.")
  • (3) Nowadays, "might have" and "may have" can also be used interchangeably, but historically (in the 19th century) "might have" was more common. As a result, "might have" still sounds more natural to some. For example:
    • Sarah may have spoken to the CEO.
    • Sarah might have spoken to the CEO.
    • (Both of these are correct, but "might have" sounds more natural to some.)
    might or may?

    Is "May" More Likely Than "Might"?

    Look at these two sentences:
    • I might go to the concert.
    • I may go to the concert.
    Nowadays, "might" and "may" express equal levels of possibility.

    However, be aware that some of your readers could treat "may" as more likely than "might." In other words, with the first example above, they could treat the likelihood of you attending the concert as, let's say, a 40% possibility. However, with the second example (the one with "may"), they could treat this as, let's say, a 60% possibility. You should not think of "weighting the possibility" as the difference between "might" and "may" though — most people do not apply that idea these days.

    Eliminate Ambiguity with "May"

    Be aware that may can be used for permission.

    For example:
    • May I go to the concert?
    • (This means the same as "Am I allowed to go to the concert?")
    As a result, using "may" could create some ambiguity.

    For example:
    • I may go to the concert.
    • (This is ambiguous. Does it mean "I am allowed to go to the concert" or does it mean "I might go to the concert"?)
    When you have a situation like this, use "might" (or a version of "allow") to eliminate the ambiguity.

    For example:
    • I might go to the concert.
    • I am allowed to go to the concert.

    Use "Might" in the Past Tense

    Nowadays, you can safely use "might have" and "may have" interchangeably. However, be aware that some pedants might insist that only "might have" can be used in the past tense . To placate those people, you should opt for "might have" over "may have."

    For example:
    • I might have cooked a lasagne if you hadn't called.
    • I may have cooked a lasagne if you hadn't called.
    • (This is not wrong, but it does not sound as natural to the native ear as the version above. This is especially true when the event did not occur. In this example, the lasagne did not get made.)
    For most native English speakers, "might have" usually sounds better. However, if you have a good reason for using "may have" over "might have," you should go for it.

    For example:
    • The mites may have caused the infection.
    • (In this example, the author was keen to avoid "mites might.")

    They're Auxiliary (or Helping) Verbs

    "Might" and "may" are classified as auxiliary verbs (also called "helping verbs." ("Can," "have," "would," "should," and "could" are also auxiliary verbs.) A helping verb accompanies another verb in order to help express its tense or mood.
    Interactive Exercise
    Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

adverse or averse? affect or effect? Ms., Miss, or Mrs? avenge or revenge? bare or bear? can and may complement or compliment? dependant or dependent? discreet or discrete? disinterested or uninterested? e.g. or i.e.? envy or jealousy? imply or infer? its or it's? material or materiel? poisonous or venomous? practice or practise? principal or principle? shall and will tenant or tenet? who's or whose? What is the past tense? What are verbs? What are helping verbs? What is tense? What is mood? List of easily confused words