May Or Might? Or What?

Photo credit: Diana Polekhina

Just one of the brilliant things about a shared language is that it brings clarity of meaning. Whenever we communicate, we should at least try to avoid ambiguity and confusion. A discussion about whether to use ‘may’ or ‘might’ illustrates this point really well.

I’ll start with a couple of statements. They are not hard and fast rules but, if you follow them most of the time, you won’t go far wrong.

  1. The use of ‘may’ is best connected with permission; in limited cases it can refer to a possibility. It is sometimes used to express a wish
  2. ‘Might’ is better for possibility, probability or chance.

More about these statements shortly.

Let’s put out the rubbish first

A quick search of the Internet shows that there’s a lot of what is essentially nonsense being spread around. Many people — especially those for whom English is not their first language — are being misled.

I’ve seen charts and visuals that claim using ‘may’ or ‘might’ suggests arbitrary (and vastly varying) ‘percentage values of possibility’. I’ve also seen strange statements that try to use the words to signal distinctions between uncertainty, probability and possibility. 

Look them up if you really want to but if you want to know how, or whether, to use ‘may’ or ‘might’, they aren’t useful at all. Quite the opposite. One rather weird example is enough.

An ‘educational’ site claims:

I may go tomorrow’ means there is a very strong probability I will go (50–75% certain). 

I might win the race’ means I am not confident (less than 50% certain).

It gets worse; the percentages apparently change when you introduce the negative. I won’t waste your time….

Sorry, but this is rubbish. Quite apart from the sheer absurdity of assigning percentages, the difference between ‘may’ and ‘might’ isn’t one of degree.

‘May’ or ‘might’: does it really matter?

Less ridiculous are those sites that claim the two words mean more or less the same thing. 

In some cases, it doesn’t matter much. 

For example:

It might rain or It may rain

That might happen or That may happen

I think ‘might’ is better, but clearly there’s no real confusion between possibility and permission here. The reason is partly because of the imprecise ‘empty’ subjects, ‘It’ and ‘That’.

Wishing and hoping

Sometimes, the word ‘may’ is used to express a wish for the future, as in:

May you both be very happy.

Again there’s no confusion or ambiguity.

Using the two words interchangeably, though, can often cause confusion. Sometimes (and there are legal and medical examples), it’s much more problematic.

How best to use ‘may’ and ‘might’

To explain, I’ll return to the two statements I made earlier.

  1. The use of ‘may’ is best connected with permission; in limited cases it can refer to a possibility. It is sometimes used to express a wish
  2. ‘Might’ is better for possibility, probability or chance.

Here are some examples showing how the choice of ‘may’ or ‘might’ really does make a difference. Notice it happens when the subject is more clearly defined.

For example:

You may order alcohol to go with your meal (you are allowed to; you’re old enough; you have permission).

You might order alcohol to go with your meal (it’s a possibility, but perhaps you haven’t decided yet). 

Using the terms interchangeably in this sentence might not destroy the whole meaning of your writing (unless the ‘you’ is under legal drinking age) but the difference is quite clear. 

Now look at these two sentences:

My dog might bite you (there’s a chance he will; a possibility).

My dog may bite you (I gave him permission, so he’s allowed to go for it).

Big difference this time.

When the difference could spell trouble

Consider these two sentences:

An inexperienced, ill-informed doctor might give you a lethal dose of the medication (it’s a scary possibility; that’s why doctors should be well-trained and educated).

An inexperienced, ill-informed doctor may give you a lethal dose…. (he has been given permission to finish you off, so bad luck).

Even bigger difference. Huge!

It’s not so much about rules. It’s about being clear with regard to meaning.

Before writing, think about the effect it will have on your audience’s understanding. The more clarity your writing has, the more engaging it will be; the less ambiguity in your meaning, the greater the impact it will have.

Following these guidelines might lift your language. You may quote me on this.

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