Word Confusion: May versus Might

Posted May 19, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 23 September 2017

Traditionally, the verbs may and might are present and past tense, and they are increasingly being used interchangeably for casual use.

I may have some dessert after dinner, if I’m still hungry.

I might have known that the highway would be closed because of the storm.

Understanding this difference between traditional and casual can be useful when showing a character’s background, class, or educational level.

You might also want to explore the post, “Can versus May“; you may discover more about using may.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

May Might
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: may

Black-and-white image of men and women holding the ribbons that connect to the top of a May Pole

“May Day with People Around the May Pole”, 1920, from the OSU Special Collections & Archives: Commons has no restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Amphibious trac coming out of an LST H-45 minute on D-Day. They are about to land on Peleliu. September 1944.

“Amphibious Trac Coming Out of an LST on Peleliu Beach” courtesy of W.wolny, via Wikimedia Commons

The Allied might about to land on Peleliu Beach on D-Day.

Part of Grammar:
Noun 1, Proper Noun 2;
Verb, intransitive 2;
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Person Present Singular and Plural Modal Verb 3

Past tense: might

Noun 5;
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Person Past Singular and Plural Modal Verb 3

Present tense: may

[British] Hawthorn tree

[British] Hawthorn blossom

[Archaic] A maiden 4

Proper Noun:
Fifth month of the year (usually considered the last month of spring in the northern hemisphere)

[Usually, one’s May; literary] One’s bloom or prime

May Day festivities

Given name of a female

Verb, intransitive:
To gather flowers in the spring

Verb, Modal:
Express possibility

  • Used when admitting that something is so before making another, more important point

Express permission

Express a wish or hope

[Archaic] Mayest

[Archaic] Mayst

Express contingency, especially in clauses indicating condition, concession, purpose, result, etc.

[Archaic] Express ability or power

Great and impressive power or strength, especially of a nation, large organization, or natural force

  • Physical strength

Verb, modal:
As the past tense of may, it is especially used:

  • In reported speech, expressing possibility or permission
  • Expressing a possibility based on a condition not fulfilled
  • Expressing annoyance about something that someone has not done
  • Expressing purpose

Used in questions and requests

  • Tentatively asking permission
  • Expressing a polite request
  • Asking for information, especially condescendingly

Used to express possibility or make a suggestion

The may blossoms are coming out.

Proper Noun:
The new model makes its showroom debut in May.

It was a miserable May morning, overcast and raining.

The others murmured that their May was passing.

Verb, intransitive:
When we were maying…

Verb, Modal:
Be that as it may, I still believe that…

We may as well get on with it.

That may be true.

He may well win.

They may have been old-fashioned, but they were excellent teachers.

You may use a sling if you wish.

May I ask a few questions?

May she rest in peace.

We may as well enter, as it won’t get any easier.

I may be wrong but I think you would be wise to go.

Times may change but human nature stays the same.

May you live to an old age.

We’ll have to live with it, come what may.

It was a convincing display of military might.

“Might is right” is a poor philosophy to embrace.

He lifted with all his might.

With might and main, we shall overcome our enemy.

Verb, modal:
You might just as well get it over with.

Ah, geez, I might have known you did it.

They said he might be late.

We might have won if we’d played better.

You might have told me!

She avoided social engagements so that she might work.

Might I ask one question?

You might just call me Jane, if you don’t mind.

And who might you be?

This might be true.

You might try melatonin to help you sleep.

Adverb: maybe, mayhap
Contraction: mayn’t, may’ve
Exclamation: Mayday
Noun: a-maying, maybe, Mayday, Maytime, maying, maypole
Verb: mayest
Adjective: mightier, mightiest, mightless, mighty
Adverb: mightily
Contraction: mightn’t, might’ve
Noun: might-have-been, mightiness
History of the Word:
1 Late Middle English from the proper noun, May.

2 Late Old English from the Old French mai, which is from the Latin short for Maius mēnsis meaning Maia’s month.

3 Old English mæg is of Germanic origin, from a base meaning have power and related to the Dutch mogen and German mögen.

4 Old English mæg is related to Old High German māg meaning kinsman, which is from the Old Norse māgr meaning a relative by marriage

5 Old English miht or mieht is of Germanic origin.

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C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Pinterest Photo Credits

Credit to Crystal Links for its “Happy May Day” post.