May or might? Many writers (and journalists who should definitely know better) have been flummoxed by that one. It seems, increasingly, that may is used all the time, even when it’s actually wrong.
Try this for size:
The Queen may have married someone other than Prince Phillip.
Right? Or wrong? Or something in between?
Yes, this one is complicated. So we’ll come back to it later. Let’s tackle the straightforward issues first.
May can have different meanings
In ordinary usage, the verb may can have two different meanings. This can cause confusion.
A “Jane may have two cakes,” said Mother, just before tea.
B “Jane may have two sisters,” said the solicitor, just before the will was read.
In sentence A, may = she is permitted to.
In sentence B, may = it is possible that.
May is so often used incorrectly where we should use might — especially in reported speech — that many of us can no longer trust our instincts to tell us that it’s wrong. But there are Pedantique-Ryter ways of getting the right instincts back, at least for reported speech.
May = is permitted to (A)
Let’s have a go, turning sentence A into reported speech. Which do we write?
- Just before tea, Mother said that Jane may have two cakes. OR
- Just before tea, Mother said that Jane might have two cakes.
The second version, using might, is correct in reported (indirect) speech.
The Simple Pedantique-Ryter Rule is that may in direct speech becomes might when it’s turned into reported speech.
But nowadays, lots of people automatically choose the first version and use may all the time. It seems to be spreading, like a nasty ungrammatical rash. But I have a failsafe cure for the may-rash. Here’s how to check out when to use might.
May/Might Tip #1 — Use Can/Could to Check Reported Speech
If in doubt, substitute can/could for may/might. So our two versions of sentence A become:
- Just before tea, Mother said that Jane can have two cakes. OR
- Just before tea, Mother said that Jane could have two cakes.
It should now be much easier for your ear to tell you that version 2 is right. So, when in doubt, test with can/could and trust your instincts. If your ear says could sounds right, then might is right, too.
May = it is possible that (B)
We can turn sentence B into reported speech as well, in the same way.
- Just before the will was read, the solicitor said that Jane may have two sisters. OR
- Just before the will was read, the solicitor said that Jane might have two sisters.
Again version 2 is correct, because may becomes might in reported speech. If in doubt, use the can/could test again and your ear should tell you what is right.
In the can/could test below, version 2 is clearly correct. Therefore, so is might.
- Just before the will was read, the solicitor said that Jane can have two sisters OR
- Just before the will was read, the solicitor said that Jane could have two sisters.
But this may = it-is-possible sense can still be confusing. So . . .
May/Might Tip #2 — Avoid the Issue in Reported Speech
There’s another approach you can use. Some writers feel more comfortable by getting rid of this second sense of may/might altogether in reported speech:
Just before the will was read, the solicitor said that it was possible [that] Jane had two sisters.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this extended version. If you think it’s clearer, or reads better, go ahead and use it. If you use this trick, at least there’s no possibility of getting may/might wrong.
But what about that first example?
I have to admit I cheated there. The green sentence at the top of the post is actually about a specialised usage of may and may have. And it’s rather more difficult to deal with than plain old reported speech where there’s a Simple Pedantique-Ryter Rule.
So what about the Queen and her marriage?
The Queen may have married someone other than Prince Phillip
makes the poor woman sound like a potential bigamist, doesn’t it?
Using may have married implies an open-ended, uncertain possibility. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. And since she certainly did marry Prince Philip, that would be two husbands! So, in this case, may must definitely be incorrect.
Whereas the correct version of the sentence:
The Queen might have married someone other than Prince Phillip
tells us that it was possible for her to find other men to marry, but she didn’t take up the opportunities even if they did occur. In other words, the possibility is closed off.
Phew! You’re off the bigamy hook, ma’am!
There may be more soon.
(A not-too-uncertain possibility, you might call that!)
Thank you, Dame Isadora. I’m now wondering how many times I’ve used may/might wrongly in the past…
Hanging your head, eh? Quite right. But you’ll feel much better now you’re determined not to transgress again, I’m sure.
Thank you, Dame Isadora. I usually follow your suggestion of avoiding the issue altogether by using a different phrase, but this is, as always, extremely useful.
So glad you’re taking my words to heart, April. I do wish everyone would.
I thought I was the only editor still insisting on this. So glad to see I am not alone.
Ha! We may be few in number, Sharon, but we are still right! So please keep on insisting.
Thank you! I feel much more secure about may/might, now.
Glad to hear it, Sue. Keep up the good work. I shall be watching . . .