Do the sentences

She might be only 28, but Jodie Whittaker....


My parents would have walked along the Barrow

wrongly suggest doubt, or are they normal usage? Are there names for these constructions? Taken from An Irishman's Diary.

I googled "would have spent their time". Many cases were counterfactuals ("... otherwise they would have spent their time...”) But plenty simply describe past events, as the in the usage sited above. I couldn't detect a regional bias. As an Irish-English speaker this usage is unremarkable.

For example, I might say

This is the exact spot where Caesar would have crossed the Rubicon

I think the intention is to evoke the event rather than just record it.

5 Answers 5


Having skimmed now the linked article, I would say that the first construction is perfectly grammatical and normal-sounding to me as a speaker of American English, though may would work equally well as might in that sentence. Merriam-Webster says for might that it can be “a polite alternative to may”, and their definition of may gives as part of sense 3 “used in auxiliary function expressing … concession <he may be slow but he is thorough>”, which I suppose is the sense here.

The second sentence, though, with the implication that the parents did walk along the Barrow, is strange to me.

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    It sounds alright if you leave off the have, i.e. "My parents would walk along the Barrow." I suppose it implies that the parents did walk, but no longer do. Commented Sep 29, 2010 at 18:23
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    I think 'may be' would probably be better here, as the meaning is that she is, in fact, 28. She might be only 28 carries with it the suggestion that she might not be 28. Commented Sep 29, 2010 at 22:01
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    @Brian to me “she may be only 28” has equally as much suggestion of doubt as “she might be only 28” does.
    – nohat
    Commented Sep 29, 2010 at 22:28
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    @nohat, I had a look via Google for more information on this point, but, try as I might, I couldn't find anything. I remember reading an article on the difference between "Launching the lifeboat may have saved lives" and "Launching the lifeboat might have saved lives" but I can't remember where so that doesn't help much as a reference. Commented Sep 30, 2010 at 10:28
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    @Brian I would say may/might + perfective (have) has a different meaning than the “concession” meaning here. “Launching the lifeboat may have saved lives” implies the lifeboat was launched, whereas “… might have saved lives” implies it wasn’t launched.
    – nohat
    Commented Sep 30, 2010 at 15:45

Might implies possibility.

She might be 28, but she very well could be older.

Would implies intent.

My parents would have walked along the Barrow had they lived by it.

I don't think either of your statements imply doubt of any kind.

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    I think there's a misunderstanding here. Leaving aside the difference between may and might (as too difficult), She might be only 28 but she has a string of successes does not imply any doubt about her age, and They would have walked along the Barrow, as a presumed/repeated action, implies that they actaully did live near there. There are certainly other uses for both phrases. Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 21:05
  • There isn't that much one can glean from the question as far as what the phrases were going for, that's why I added my generalization of an answer. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 14:08

In the case of both may/might and would, it's the later part of the sentence that determines the usage. So...


She might be only 28, but Jodie Whittaker...

The use of the but following indicates that something about Jodie Whittaker is unusual for her age. This could be something positive, like a string of successes, or negative, like a medical condition normally associated with advanced age. The use of might be in this case doesn't indicate uncertainty, but irrelevance.

The aliens might be from Alpha Centauri

Means we don't know where the aliens are from, but Alpha Centauri is a possibility.

The aliens might be from Alpha Centauri, but they still preferred to settle in Croydon

Means that the aliens are from Alpha Centauri, but they're settling in a place we would not expect from Alpha Centaurans (I hear there's a thriving Centauritown in New York).

The construction is perfectly natural to a native speaker, though I have to admit it's a little odd from the outside (indeed, the first time I typed this sentence, I wrote "It might sound a bit odd, but the construction is perfectly natural to a native speaker").

It's a way of indicating an exception; "X may or may not be true, but the important part is Y".


The usage of would is more straightforward. It's simply the past tense of will. If it were followed by a but, it would indicate something that prevented it from happening.

My parents would have walked along here, but the path wasn't built until they had moved away.

Present tense...

I will walk along the beach, unless a tsunami warning is sounded

becomes past tense...

I would have walked along the beach, but a tsunami warning sounded.


Let's take them one at a time. The first,

She might be only 28

is an example of great understatement, similar to when we say,

You know you might have helped us.

The person is actually making a dig at the person by using might to imply "it's the least you could have done."

I think that this is another example of understatement. The person is saying something like "yeah, she's only 28 but wow... "

In one possible scenario, I can see that there could be some doubt but in the other I envision I don't see any doubt. In the first scenario, a child, maybe an orphan who found out who their parents were, makes a judgement that the parents, who, having lived close to the Barrow [a river?] must have walked along that __.

The second, it's a child who grew up with his parents and is describing a routine that the parents were seen to have engaged in. This is the would of reminiscing.


I remember when I was sick, my mother would stroke my head and sing softly to me.

When I was a young lad, my father would take me fishing every Saturday morning after chores.


Brian Hooper: I had a look via Google for more information on this point, but, try as I might, I couldn't find anything. I remember reading an article on the difference between "Launching the lifeboat may have saved lives" and "Launching the lifeboat might have saved lives" but I can't remember where so that doesn't help much as a reference.

Nohat: I would say may/might + perfective (have) has a different meaning than the “concession” meaning here. “Launching the lifeboat may have saved lives” implies the lifeboat was launched, whereas “… might have saved lives” implies it wasn’t launched.


I'm not completely sure of how things operate here at Stack Exchange. I'm not trying to step on anyone's toes, nor am I trying to be mean or snide. I don't know if this is the "proper" manner of addressing this. It seems to me that Comments is meant for just that, a short comment.

This, to my mind, requires much more discussion, [and I hope it doesn't end here. Is there not a venue for advanced discussion?], hence more needed space so I've opted for a Your Answer. And I believe my comments are directed to answering the question.

With respect, there's no way we can make the assumption that there is a "rule" that will describe for all situations/scenarios that launching or not launching a lifeboat [or similar situation] may or may not or might or might not have saved lives or told or implied to us whether or not a lifeboat was launched.

There are scenarios where both 'may' and 'might' are used with their normal epistemic [level of certainty] meanings to speculate on past time events just as they are used to speculate on future or present condition events.

Let me create a scenario. This is a time before ship to shore radios, radar, etc. were available.

A ferry is about to leave port. A person on the dock remarks, "That boat might sink". That is based on their personal feeling according to whatever facts, feelings, superstitions that person holds that has influenced their choice of 'might'.

A worker who has been involved in maintaining the ferry says, "I warned my superiors. That ferry may sink".

The owner says, "That ferry will never sink" [Where have we heard that before?]

A foreman says in a suicide note, "I have to address this, ... to set the record straight. We did our best but the owners wanted to save money. That ferry probably will go down on this trip."

Other people, for whatever personal reasons they have, even a premonition, could choose, "The ferry will almost certainly sink" / "The ferry may well/might well sink".

The wide variation, which ranges from zero percent chance [owner] to say, a old time "terrorist" who has made some effort to sink the boat, conjecturing "That ferry will go down", does not mean that anyone of them is right before the boat leaves port.

That's what modals allow us to do, speculate on events, conjecture, and it doesn't matter if the event is past, present or future.

There is a terrible storm, the ferry is overdue. Those same people, probably now joined by countless others, all weigh in with their OPINIONS because, they have nothing else to go on. Remember, this is a time before radios, radar, etc.

1)The ferry went down.

2) The ferry must have sunk.

3) The ferry probably/likely sank.

4) The ferry may have gone down.

5) The ferry might have gone down.

6) The ferry didn't sink.

Again, at this point, with the available information, all are opinions, even 1) and 6), though one of them will, maybe, probably never, eventually be confirmed as fact.

But look at the modal perfect examples for that's the point I'm trying to get across. Sometimes, 'might' just means what it most often normally means, "there's a tiny to small chance that X will occur/is occurring/has occurred".

The ferry, I'm sad to report, [this is my scenario] went down. The people of that time only know this because no trace was ever found of the boat, the people or the things on the boat. No lifeboats were ever launched.

There is now rampant speculation among the population on whether a or some lifeboats would have saved lives.

1) Lifeboats would have saved lives.

2) Lifeboats almost certainly would have saved lives.

[Note that 'must have saved lives', epistemically equal to 'almost certainly would have saved lives' isn't possible here]

3) Lifeboats probably/likely would have saved lives.

[Note that 'should have saved lives', is strange here even though 'should' is epistemically equal to 'probably/likely'.]

4) Lifeboats may have saved lives.

5) Lifeboats might have saved lives.

6) Lifeboats wouldn't have saved lives.

But all these are still simply personal opinions, not statements of fact.

Look at the 'may have' and 'might have' parts. There's no implication in the 'might have saved lives' opinion that lifeboats were launched. There's a fact that dismisses any such implication. No lifeboats were launched.

Certainly, there are situations where 'might' and 'may are used to effect a meaning other that their basic epistemic/level of certainty meanings. I noted this with respect to 'might' in my previous post.

We know that there are meanings for 'may' and for 'might' that are sometimes used to make a concession and sometimes, to angrily suggest [sometimes using understatement] that something should have been done.

For this scenario, "You might have [at the very least] sent out one search boat!"

What nohat stated was true, but it's not true for all situations, not even for most; I'd say that its true for a small portion of 'might have + PP' situations.

I'm sorry that this is so long, but if you'll bear with me. I've read often this idea presented by nohat. It is similar in nature to the thought used to prohibit "If S was" as a counterfactual use.

Somebody, sometime, noticed that "If S was" can hold the meaning of "allowing that that is true, ... ", so they errantly made a determination that that excluded the counterfactual 'was' use in "If I was you, ... ".

Language is exceedingly complex and these kinds of expansive notions aren't helpful to come to an understanding of language. They have no affect on native speakers, save for the fact that the myths continue to be spread, but they have a gigantic affect on ESL/EFLs, both in terms of comprehension and production.

Another of these expansive notions is the idea that 'would' is subjunctive. It is not! There are only a few examples of the subjunctive left in English and 'would' is not one of them.

'would' can be, and is often used in subjunctive uses to express subjunctive/contrary to fact ideas, but so are a lot of other modals.

'would' also hold the meaning of 100% true, "that would be Bill"; "He would, ten years later, be elected president".

The original question, which I'm now pointedly getting to, [how does one illustrate a degree of embarrassment?]

My parents would have walked along the Barrow

likely, in my opinion, shows this same meaning of 'would', ie. 100% true. I may be wrong for this particular instance but that doesn't negate the fact that that is how 'would' is often used.

Cindi noted: I think the intention is to evoke the event rather than just record it.

Cindi and I disagree. She has an opinion on how 'would' is being used here that differs from my opinion. She may well be right. The speaker could be using 'would have' in the same sense as 'must have', which would express some degree of doubt.

The mistaken notion that 'would' is always subjunctive/shows doubt cause these kinds of misunderstanding. I suspect that the person who asked the original question is a native speaker - I could be wrong here too but nevertheless, the answers, I feel, illustrate just how strong this notion is set even in the conscious ideas of native speakers.

It's interesting to note, please do, that this notion doesn't exist in our personal natural grammars because we all use this idea of 'would' as 100% true in so many instances, without it twigging whatever conscious prescriptions we hold.

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