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I personally have a hard time accepting the use of "may or may not." To me, it seems as if "may" and "may not" effectively cancel each other out, so the semantics of the sentence in which it appears are no clearer:

I may go to bed early tonight.

This seems to indicate that it is likely I will not go to bed early tonight.

I may not go to bed early tonight.

Contrariwise, this seems to indicate that it is likely I will go to bed early tonight.

I may or may not go to bed early tonight.

This seems to leave me with absolutely no clarity as to which eventuality is likely to occur.

Am I missing something obvious here, or is this particular expression just a rhetorical device for saying, "I'm on the fence?"

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7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

"May or may not" is used to indicate that the point is under thought or scrutiny. It's not meant to give a clear indication that one option is more likely than the other.

For what it is worth, you're not alone in your difficulty accepting the phase. I usually follow up use of "may or may not" with one of two statements:

  • My understanding of the situation remains unchanged.
  • Let me know when you figure that out.
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Is there any reason to believe that using this phrase in formal writing or speech is less appropriate than a more direct expression? "I don't know if I will go to bed tonight," for example. –  LucasTizma Jan 26 '11 at 5:26
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Could you please comment on the usage of this expression in sentences like "The function foo may or may not return a bar.", where the point is to emphasize that you can't rely on one behavior? –  deceze Jan 26 '11 at 8:43
    
@deceze: The point is to emphasize that you cannot rely on a behaviour. Something along the lines "keep in mind that, even if in the majority of the cases it works that way, it could also work in some other way..." –  Francesco Jan 26 '11 at 10:54
    
@deceze: That is covered under my statement that "it's not meant to give a clear indication that one option is more likely than the other". You would have to be prepared to handle both cases. –  Shaun Jan 26 '11 at 15:35

The phrase, "...may or may not" implies the potential of intent. The word "might" does not. This usage comes up in engineering quite often. The bolt might be the weak link. This implies no one knows, or it was not considered. Not a good thing to say at work. The bolt may or may not be the weak link. Leaves no room for interpretation regarding the possibility of it being the weak link without intent. The bolt was intentionally either designed to be the weak link, or designed to not be the weak link. We just haven't found out which yet. Review the design details to find out. The word "might" implies something was done wrong even though it has yet to be determined as to whether the bolt is the weak link. This is a fine point but is gives the hearer the impression you are making no presupposition regarding the effort to bring something together with integrity, both in the process and the thing. This really isn't political correctness as much as it is professionalism. Language, is it how we use it or how it is to be used that defines terms.

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I have never in my life heard it said that may implies intent but that its past tense might does not. Please give citations of reputable references that support this extraördinary claim. –  tchrist Apr 30 at 0:23

I'm not a native speaker but these are my two cents:

Language and logic are, indeed, deeply woven when it comes to formal speech. Tautologies, redundancies and contradictions are not necessary and can be paraphrased. The word "may" connotes a possibility, and it's negation "may not" is in essence equivalent; selection between expressions may be preferred to better suit region, readers or to keep the running sentence in tone with the its idea.

I may let you go. I may not let you go.

Depending on the context or your own personal preference, one may sound more negative than the other.

With that said, I think "may or may not" is an important literary resource when attempting to make a character seem indecisive or unsure.

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In addition to all the correct answers, here is another rather ironic use that I encounter quite often.

I may or may not have to use the bathroom really badly.

The speaker has to use the bathroom really badly and felt it necessary to add feigned subtlety to his declaration, most likely for the sake of humor.

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I think it's an acceptable usage precisely because the speaker is intentionally being humorous. :) –  LucasTizma Apr 24 '13 at 23:34

I use may to mean that something is a possibility, i.e it may not be fair. This does not mean that I conclude that it is unfair; rather, that I am considering the possibility.

According to my 1990 Oxford English Dictionary, the first meaning of both might and may is "possibility". However, for me, the usage of may is slightly more positive than might. So I think that one could be said to be sitting on the fence; but leaning slightly towards the positive side!

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What you are missing is that logic and language are separate domains with a smaller overlap than many people would like to think.

Logically, "I may or may not go" is, of course, a tautology, and conveys no information. But pragmatically, the fact that it is said, and that it is chosen against other possibilities, does convey meaning. (Others have suggested some of the possibilities for that meaning).

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I like this clarification. I guess I too frequently look for this overlap when none may exist. :) –  LucasTizma Mar 16 '13 at 14:40

You could say you may or may not do something if you wanted to emphasize your undecided state of mind.

I may or may not go to bed tonight.

This lets people know that you have a decision before you. It is not a "nothing" statement. It is commenting on your state of mind.

I may go to bed tonight.

This announces that you are considering going to bed. It may also be said ironically, if you are being kept up quite late and think you may never get to bed given what you are doing.

I may not go to bed tonight.

The announcement here is that you are considering staying up all night. This would probably not be used ironically, since it is unremarkable to consider the opposite of not going to bed.

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