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May Versus Might

You may learn something.

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #096

 

Might Is the Past Tense of May

There are two exceptions to this rule.

First, might is the past tense of may. So you have to use might when you are referring to the past. For example, even if it's likely that Squiggly went to a party last night, Aardvark shouldn't say, “Squiggly may have gone to the party’; he should say, “Squiggly might have gone to the party.”

The second exception is a gray area. When you're talking about something not happening, it can be better to use might because people could think you're talking about permission if you use may. This is clearer with an example. If you aren't sure whether you'll go to the party, and you say, "We may not go to the party," it can be misinterpreted to mean you don't have permission to go to the party, particularly in writing, where voice inflections don't help guide the meaning. But if you say, "We might not go to the party," then your meaning is clear. It's the safer bet.

So remember to use may when the outcome is likely and might when the outcome is less likely or uncertain. But also remember that you use might for everything in the past tense. Also, it's OK to use might when you're writing about negative outcomes, even if they're likely outcomes, if using may would make people think you were talking about having permission.

Modals

Finally, here's a bit of grammar terminology. May and might are both called modals, as are words such as would, should, and could. Modals are helping verbs that tell you more about the mood or attitude of the action verb. For example, you can tell that someone has a different attitude toward a party depending on the modal used. There's a big difference between I may go, I should go, and I would go.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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