Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

What is the difference in meaning in these three sentences?

it might be funny
it could be funny
it may be funny

The answer was partially touched on in this post.

share|improve this question
1  
It might be better if you give more context, for example it may help provide narrower answers. If no one bites it could be a sign that the question was too vague. –  Jared Updike Nov 3 '10 at 0:35
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

All three phrases indicate that the source (the person who is speaking or writing the sentence) does not find the subject (it) very funny. The subtle differences between the three are all about tense (either present or future) and degree of confidence.

  1. It might be funny
    Low confidence, present or future tense:
    In this context, the word might indicates either: (1) a small chance that the subject is funny, or (2) a small chance that it will be funny in the future. If the second meaning is intended, it would normally be followed by a condition of some sort: "It might be funny if..."

  2. It may be funny
    Medium confidence, present or future tense:
    This phrase is very similar to the first one, except that it implies a greater chance that the subject is funny or will be funny in the future. Without any context, I would interpret this to mean: "It is possible that someone else would find it funny."

  3. It could be funny
    High confidence, future tense:
    This phrase absolutely refers to the future. Two things are being said: (1) The subject, in its current form, is not funny. (2) There is a good chance of it becoming funny, as long as something changes. "It could be funny, as long as no one is offended."

share|improve this answer
    
I don't mean to be at all unkind here, but the nuances that can be expressed by modals are really much more varied that the replies in most of the threads show. We have a limited number of modals to state all the nuances that are possible in life and I think we all tend to get hung up on the context we see at one moment. In "Someone else would find it funny", the speaker can be just as sure, possibly even more sure than someone choosing 'will'. It can also show that that speaker just doesn't want to appear as a know it all/too confident. –  Dan Apr 23 '11 at 19:17
    
I'd put "probably" in there also, perhaps to a higher degree than "could". ie: It's probably funny –  Roy Apr 16 '12 at 5:48
add comment

"Could" is the conditional mood of the verb "can" and "might" is the conditional mood of the verb "may". Therefore, both imply the necessity of a condition that is not present. The joke might/could be funny, if (it were rephrased, it were delivered differently, the matter weren't so tragic, etc.). The joke may well be funny and the conditions for it to be funny may well be present, but, perhaps, it is not funny not so much because of any missing conditions, but, for example, because I have no sense of humor or because I do not know the antecedent facts.

"Can" has to do with ability, "may" has to do with possibility. The joke could be funny if it refers to facts that could be considered humorous by some, but it just was not structured well enough to clearly present the underlying humor; it could be funny if it were rephrased. The joke might be funny to people that have a sick sense of humor, but, in my opinion, it is not funny at all.

share|improve this answer
add comment

There isn't any real discerning difference between the three modal verbs: might, could and may in the context of your question. All three express varying degrees of certainty, and a lot depends on the speaker's intonation or in the context of the situation.

I disagree with e.James that could denotes "high confidence" and might "low confidence". Depending on the situation and how it was said, possibly. I would say that could suggests that the speaker is slightly more certain that the film is funny, but without a real context I will never be certain.

Possibly may is becoming less common in some parts of the world and is considered almost quaint and too formal by many. Nowadays, people tend to say and write maybe when instead there should be two words. "It's maybe funny", or better still "Maybe it's funny", has a more colloquial ring to it, and looks more contemporary.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.