May vs. Might

A few weeks ago, my friend Laurie asked me to write a post on may vs. might. So, Laurie, this one’s for you!

I’ll start things off with an example: I might order Chinese later? OR I may order Chinese later?

The difference is subtle, and at first you’re probably wondering what the point of this post is anyway, because what’s the difference? As I’ve been trying to show you, however, one word can make all the difference. Both may and might suggest something that could or could not happen, so in that sense they’re the same. The difference comes in when you consider the degree of certainty.

I think of might a bit more sarcastically. As in: Yeah, I might go on a date with him if he ever got his act together. What’s implied here is: Yeah, I might do that, but… the possibility is slim.

You would use may if the possibility is leaning toward the side of probably. An example would be if you were considering what you’re going to do that day: I may call Sally later and invite her to a movie. May in this case meaning: “it’s definitely on my list of possibilities.”

Grammar Girl has written an excellent article on this exact subject if you would like further reading. She notes two exceptions to the above “rule.”

1) Might is past tense of May

Example: Bob might have asked her out last night = We’re not sure if he did or didn’t, but it happened in the past tense.
NOT: Bob may have asked her out last night.

2) Clarity

The second exception to the may/might rule discussed above is for instances of clarity.
Example: Bob may ask her out.

This could either mean that Bob will probably ask her out OR it could mean that Bob has permission to ask her out. If it’s the former, might should be used to avoid confusion.

The same goes for may not.
Example: Bob may not ask her out.

So does Bob not have permission, or is he just not going to? We’re not sure, so to avoid confusion, you would want to say: Bob might not ask her out.

I hope that helps! Again, I definitely recommend Grammar Girl’s may/might article for further reading.

*P.S. There will not be a Friday writing post this week. Happy Thanksgiving!

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