It’s quite common to mistakenly use the word may instead of the word might and vice versa. Collins Improve your Writing Skills by Graham King explains that you should use the word may in present and future tense situations “when an outcome is still unknown”, whereas you would use might “when an if is lurking in the background – when we discuss something that was likely or possible on some past occasion”.
A couple of examples
“If Tony hadn’t gone on holiday last Thursday, I might/may have gone round his house.”
Explanation – The correct answer is might. It’s in the past tense, the outcome is known and it’s got an if lurking about.
“I might/may win the lottery next Saturday.”
Explanation – The correct answer is may. It’s in the present tense and talking about a future outcome, which is also unknown. There’s also no if lurking about.
A quick test
Is the correct word might or may in the following sentences?
- I might/may go to work tomorrow; I’m still not sure.
- I might/may have died when the car hit the barrier, but I live to tell the tale.
- She might/may pass her exams – the results are out tomorrow.
Check your sentence. Is it in the present or future tense where the future is still unknown? If it is, then the correct word is ‘may’. Is it talking about a possible or likely outcome in the past (and is now known)? If it is, then the word is ‘might’ Sometimes with ‘might’ sentences, there is an if involved.
My thoughts: It took a while to get these rules to sink in today, but I got there in the end. I’d never given much thought of ‘may’ and ‘might’ before today. Now I will have to stop and think before writing my sentences!
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Graham King The Collins Improve your Writing Skills, UK
Answers to quick test above…
might/may go to work tomorrow; I’m still not sure. [Explanation: present tense, outcome unknown]
- I might/
mayhave died when the car hit the barrier, but I live to tell the tale. [Explanation: something that was likely, past tense, outcome known]
might/may pass her exams – the results are out tomorrow. [Explanation: present tense, outcome unknown]
Well done if you got them right.
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