The editor, R. W. Burchfield, tells us that when choosing may or might we should remember that "in certain circumstances may and might are interchangeable with only slight change of focus or emphasis. It is not always a rigorous matter of contrasting tenses, more a question of judging the degree of hypothetical possibility. Might usually carries with it a slightly more marked degree of tentativeness." The 2000 election gave us an example of two possible statements that, regardless of one's political opinions, ought to help make this distinction between may and might very clear:
Possibly, Al Gore may have won the presidential election.
Had he run a good campaign Al Gore might have won the presidential election.
Frankly, after carefully reading Fowler and also the 9 inches of small type about the distinction in Webster's Dictionary of American Usage, I believe I will stick with Eric Partridge's simpler recommendation (1973) in "Usage and Abusage":
"Both may have and might have are used of past possibilities; the former properly means that the possibility is still open, the latter that the possibility no longer exists. Do not use may have for might have, as in 'events which may never have become known here if the coup had succeeded' (BBC News). It is at least clear there that the coup failed, but if the passage had ended after 'here' there would be real doubt as to its outcome."
Or perhaps I will give up and just remember the advice Bill Walsh (copy editor at the Washington Post) gives us in his little book "Lapsing into a Comma": "Sometimes may means the same thing as might, and there's nothing wrong with that."
Talk the Talk
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