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  • I may not be coming in tomorrow...
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When could I use "may" & "might"?

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Related: When do I use “can” & “could”? –  RegDwigнt Oct 8 '10 at 12:30
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10 Answers

In cases where the two might ;-) mean more or less the same thing wrt there being a chance that something will or can occur, it can make sense to use might instead of may when there is a possibility of confusion with another meaning of may.

E.g., "John may come" can mean either that it is possible that John will come or that John is allowed to come. "John might come", on the other hand, can only mean the former.

When you need to be clear about the sense, and the intended sense is possibility, using "might" can prevent ambiguity. In general, "may" is a slipperier critter.

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Might is also the past subjunctive of may. Because of this, in some cases these aren't interchangeable; if you're using the subjunctive to form a feeling of coniditionality, may is rather inappropriate. For example, "If you were the King, then you might be able to do that."

In the same way, you can use might to form more polite questions: "Might I join you?" as opposed to "May I join you?"

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I'm not sure if "Might I join you" is actually perceived as more polite than "May I join you?". –  Marthaª Nov 2 '10 at 21:59
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As reported from the NOAD (New Oxford American Dictionary):

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 that the highway would be closed because of the storm. In casual use, though, may and might are generally interchangeable: they might take a vacation next month; he may have called earlier, but the answering machine was broken.

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As it is with all the modal pairings, 'might' is not the past tense of 'may', nor is 'may' the present tense of 'might'. All modal verbs in modern English are tenseless. As tenseless verbs, modals are able to operate in any time sense, past, present or future.

As to their epistemic [level of certainty meanings] and their deontic [social meanings] they are never interchangeable. They, like all modals, have their nuances and those nuances are expressed by choosing one or the other.

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All the above answers are correct, but there is another perspective to it. "May" and "Might", both are used to denote probability. "May" is used when the event is more likely to take place. "Might" is used when the overall probability of the event is less.

E.g

  • John is not severely sick and he is planning to go to office. We can use "may" in this case. - "John may come."
  • John is severely sick and he is planning to go office. We can use "might" in this case. -"John might come to office."
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In the present tense, they are interchangeable, though there is a subtle difference implied in the likelihood of the thing happening (you coming in tomorrow, in this case):

Most of the time “might” and “may” are almost interchangeable, with “might” suggesting a somewhat lower probability. You’re more likely to get wet if the forecaster says it may rain than if she says it might rain; but substituting one for the other is unlikely to get you into trouble—so long as you stay in the present tense. (source)

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May and might are historically different modal verbs which have drifted together in meaning in most types of English. This is a very common and normal process in all languages. May is still sometimes still used to ask permission, though that use is probably declining and you rarely hear it in American English.

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may

We can use 'may' to ask for permission. However this is rather formal and not used very often in modern spoken English. We use 'may' to suggest something is possible

might

We use 'might' to suggest a small possibility of something. Often we read that 'might' suggests a smaller possibility that 'may', there is in fact little difference and 'might is more usual than 'may' in spoken English.

more..

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I can certainly see asking for permission with "might I have one of those?" (Although "may" would be more common.) –  Peter Shor Jul 30 '12 at 0:42
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Formally, might is the past tense of may. In situations where the past tense is required, only might may be used:

Correct:

He said he might go.

Subordinate clauses in English must be in the past tense if the main clause is in the past tense, so this is correct.

Incorrect:

He said he may go.

Here you cannot use the present tense may with the past tense main verb said.

However, in the present tense may and might can be used interchangeably, meaning that all of the following are correct:

He says he may go.
He says he might go.
He may go.
He might go.

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"Subordinate clauses in English must be in the past tense if the main clause is in the past tense, so this is correct." –  Dan Apr 25 '11 at 15:16
    
"Subordinate clauses in English must be in the past tense if the main clause is in the past tense, so this is correct." That isn't an accurate description of English, JS. "I will go to Tokyo" --> She said she will go to Tokyo OR, She said she would go to Tokyo, which is certainly a viable possible as an optional backshift. But these backshifts that occur for reported speech have nothing at all, that's zero to do with tense. They ONLY serve to mark the speech as reported. "She" hasn't gone to Tokyo yet so how could/can it have anything to do with tense/time? –  Dan Apr 25 '11 at 15:23
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@Dan: I think there's a subtle point you are missing here. If the mysterious "she" says "I will go to Tokyo", she is indicating that her voyage to Tokyo is in the future, i.e. it is at a time later than now. Saying "She said she would go to Tokyo" is indicating that the voyage was in the future, i.e. it is at a time later than the (past) time when she was speaking. That is what it has to do with tense. I grant that reported speech muddies the waters, but "As it turned out, she would go there later that year" is perfectly grammatical without any reporting going on. –  psmears Apr 25 '11 at 18:01
    
@Dan: That said, I agree that it is possible to use "will" with past reported speech - adding a little more context makes it sound more natural: "I asked her just now, and she said she will go when the weather improves" (versus "She said she would go when the weather improved, and she did"). –  psmears Apr 25 '11 at 18:03
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Strictly speaking, "might" is the simple past tense of "may".

In practice, they're often used interchangeably in other tenses, as your example demonstrates.

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See comment above. –  Alan Hogue Aug 5 '10 at 22:58
    
Which comment? :-) –  kiamlaluno Jan 26 '11 at 12:43
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protected by RegDwigнt May 22 '11 at 12:26

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