Use of May and Might

Use of May

Definition: The modal verb may is used to ask, grant, or describe permission; to politely offer to do something for someone; to express the possibility of something happening or occurring; or to express a wish or desire that something will be the case in the future.

We can also use may as a rhetorical device to express or introduce an opinion about something.

Asking or Granting Permission

May is very commonly used to express or ask for permission to do something. There are other ways to do this (by using the modals can or could, for instance), but may is considered the most polite and formally correct way to do so. For example:

  • May I borrow your pen, please?
  • May we ask you some questions about your experience?
  • General, you may fire when ready.
  • She may invite one or two friends, but no more than that.
  • May we be frank with you, Tom?
  • Students may not leave the class once their exams are complete.

Making a Polite Offer

Like can, we can use may to offer do something for someone else, though it is generally a more polite, formal way of doing so. For example:

  • May I help you set the table?
  • May we be of assistance in any way?

Expressing Possibility

Another common use of may is to express the possibility that something will happen or occur in the near future, especially when that possibility is uncertain. For instance:

  • I’m worried that it may start raining soon.
  • We may run into some problems down the line that we didn’t expect.
  • I may be coming home for the winter break, depending on the cost of a plane ticket.
  • Although we may see things improve in the future, there’s no guarantee at the moment.
  • There may not be any issues at all; we’ll just have to see.

Expressing Wishes for the Future

May is also used in more formal language to express a wish or desire that something will be the case in the future. When used in this way, may is inverted with the subject, as in:

  • May you both have a long, happy life together.
  • May you be safe in your journey home.
  • We’ve had great success this year; may we continue to do so for years to come.
  • May this newfound peace remain forever between our two countries.

As a Rhetorical Device

Sometimes, we use may in this way as a rhetorical device to politely introduce or emphasize an opinion or sentiment about something, in which case we invert may with the subject. For instance:

  • May I just say, this has been the most wonderful experience of my life.
  • May we be clear that our firm will not be involved in such a dubious plan.
  • May I be frank: this is not what I was hoping for.

Note that we can accomplish the same thing by using the verbs let or allow instead, as in:

  • Let me be clear: this decision is in no way a reflection on the quality of your work.
  • Allow us to say, we were greatly impressed by your performance.

May not vs. Mayn’t (vs. Can’t)

Grammatically, it is not technically incorrect to contract may not into the single-word mayn’t. For instance:

  • You mayn’t wish to share these details with others.
  • No, you mayn’t go to the dinner unaccompanied.

However, this has become very rare in modern English, and generally only occurs in colloquial usage. In declarative sentences, it is much more common to use the two words separately, as in:

  • Employees may not use company computers for recreational purposes.
  • There may not be much we can do to prevent such problems from occurring.

It is also uncommon, though, to use may not in questions, in which may is inverted with the subject. The resulting construction (e.g., may I not or may we not) sounds overly formal in day-to-day speech and writing. Because of this, it is much more common to use the contraction can’t instead, as in:

  • Can’t we stay for a little while longer?
  • Can’t I bring a friend along with me?

Use of Might

Definition: The modal verb might is most often used to express an unlikely or uncertain possibility. Might is also used to very formally or politely ask for permission, and it is used as the past-tense form of may when asking permission in reported speech. It can also be used to suggest an action, or to introduce two differing possibilities.

Expressing Possibility

When we use might to indicate possibility, it implies a very weak certainty or likelihood that something will happen, occur, or be the case. For instance:

  • I’m hoping that she might call me later.
  • We might go to a party later, if you want to come.
  • You should pack an umbrella—it looks like it might rain.
  • There might be some dinner left over for you in the fridge.

In Conditional Sentences

We also often use might to express a possibility as a hypothetical outcome in a conditional sentence. For example:

  • If we don’t arrive early enough, we might not be able to get in to the show.
  • We still might make our flight if we leave right now!
  • If we’re lucky, we might have a chance of reversing the damage.

Politely Asking for Permission

Although may is the standard modal verb used to politely ask for permission, we can also use might if we want to add even more politeness or formality to the question. For example:

  • Might we go to the park this afternoon, father?
  • Might I ask you a few questions?
  • I’m finished with my dinner. Might I be excused from the table?

However, even in formal speech and writing, this construction can come across as rather old-fashioned, especially in American English. It more commonly occurs in indirect questions—i.e., declarative sentences that are worded in such a way as to express an inquiry (though these are technically not questions). For example:

  • I was hoping I might borrow the car this evening.
  • I wonder if we might invite Samantha to come with us.

Past Tense of May

When we use reported speech, we traditionally conjugate verbs one degree into the past. When may has been used, especially to ask for permission, in a sentence that is now being reported, we use might in its place, as in:

  • He asked if he might use the car for his date tonight.
  • She wondered if she might bring a friend to the show.

However, this rule of conjugating into the past tense is largely falling out of use in modern English, and it is increasingly common to see verbs remain in their original tense even when being reported.

Making Suggestions

Might can also be used to make polite suggestions to someone. This is much less direct and forceful than using should: it expresses a suggestion of a possible course of action rather than asserting what is correct or right to do. For example:

  • You might ask your brother about repaying that loan the next time you see him.
  • It tastes very good, though you might add a bit more salt.
  • You might try rebooting the computer; that should fix the problem for you.

Suggesting a Possibility

In a similar way, we can use might to suggest a possible action or situation to another person. For example:

  • I was wondering if you might be interested in seeing a play with me later.
  • I thought you might like this book, so I bought you a copy.

Adding Angry Emphasis

Just as we can with the modal verb could, we can use might to make a suggestion as a means of adding emphasis to an angry or frustrated remark. For example:

  • My mother has traveled a long way to be here—you might try to look a little more pleased to see her!
  • You might have told me that you didn’t want a party before I spent all this time and effort organizing one!

Introducing Differing Information

Another use of might is to introduce a statement that is contrary to or different from a second statement later in the sentence. This can be used as a means of highlighting two different possible outcomes, scenarios, or courses of action. For example:

  • Sure, you might be able to make money quickly like that, but you’re inevitably going to run into difficulties down the line.
  • I might not have much free time, but I find great satisfaction in my work.
  • Our organization might be very small, but we provide a unique, tailored service to our clientele.

As a Rhetorical Device

Sometimes, we use might as a rhetorical device to politely introduce or emphasize an opinion or sentiment about something, in which case we invert might with the subject. For instance:

  • Might I just say, this has been a most wonderful evening.
  • And might I clarify that I have always acted solely with the company’s interests in mind.
  • Might I add that your time with us has been greatly appreciated.

Note that we can accomplish the same thing by using the verbs let or allow instead, as in:

  • Let me clarify: this decision is in no way a reflection on the quality of your work.
  • Allow me to add, we were greatly impressed by your performance.

Thanks for reading about “use of may and might”.

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