News & Features » News and Features

Rosie Right

Our language and how it works.


Mother May I? (or Might I?)

In the normal course of copy-editing, I sometimes come upon the need to choose whether to say may or might. It's not as easy as one might think (may think?).

There is a simple rule that may is the present tense and might the past. But there are times when a more difficult choice has to be made. Theodore Bernstein, in his useful book "The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage," says: "May poses a possibility; might adds a greater degree of uncertainty to the possibility. … If we say, 'You had better get your tickets now or the house may be sold out,' we suggest a real possibility; if we say, 'You had better get your tickets now or the house might be sold out,' the possibility is there but it is made to seem faintly more remote."

The Oxford American Dictionary tells us: "Traditionalists insist that one should distinguish between may (present tense) and might (past tense) in expressing possibility: I may have some dessert after dinner if I'm still hungry; I might have known the highway would be closed. … In casual use, though, may and might are interchangeable."

That last bit was a comfort because when I asked an English professor for guidance, she told me that she preferred might to may in the questionable sentence because it sounded better! Pressed for some other reason, she says, "I think it's a pretty confusing subject myself."

For your possible interest, here is the sentence that worried me:

Speaking of a chef the writer opined, "While he has put his imprint on the menu, only the regulars might notice the change." Your choice?

Euphemism of the YearS
  • Click here for more Forum