May 21, 2012

Grammar Hammer: May vs. Might

May is the month of proms. Any Friday or Saturday night this month you might overhear a conversation like this one:

“May I have this next dance?” he asked, his voice trembling.

“I’m not sure I should try,” she answered. “I’m afraid I might fall in these four-inch heels.”

“Well, you may,” he mused. “But I’ll be here to catch you if you do.”

“You might not get to me in time,” she suggested. “We might cause a scene.”

“What’s the risk?” he chuckled. “It’s so crowded in here, we may not even make it to the floor.”

Did you notice the use of may and might in this exchange? The words mean essentially the same thing — they indicate possibility or probability — which probably explains why many people are confused about when to use may and when to use might.

Use “may” when something is likely to happen and “might” when something is unlikely or less likely to happen.

Note: Might is the past tense of may, so always use might if you are referring to the past.

Probability

  • Sally may go to prom with Tommy. (more likely)
  • Sally might go to prom with Tommy. (not as likely)

Possibility

  • May I go to the prom with Tommy? (more forceful)
  • Might I go to the prom with Tommy? (less forceful)

Might can also be used to signify obligation, in statements containing mild reproof:

  • You might show your parents some gratitude for buying you a dress.

So you might fall at prom, but at least now you may actually know the difference between these words!

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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