OK, we all know that epistemic modals such as may and might can be interchanged to express possibility in present & future

For example: he might be late, and he may be late are almost the same. Source

But might is also the past form of may in indirect speech:

For example: He said he might be late = He said "I may be late"

I had some feeling that people lived 100 or 200 or 300 years ago may have used may and might differently from what we are using nowadays.

I would guess, in the past, ‘he might be late’ means ‘it was possible that he is late’ and ‘he may be late’ means ‘it is possible that he is late’ The word might expresses it was possible and may expresses it is possible, but I may be wrong.

I found this information in this book "Grammatical Change in English World-Wide"

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The book says:

"something might happen" in the past (maybe 1000 or 200 or longer time ago) (might + inf) is equivalent to "something might / may have happened" (might / may + have +PP) in Modern English.

Q: So, how were might and may used in the past?

  • @Mari-Lou A: The answer to what I see as the "original" ends with in modern English, "might" has lost its sense as a past tense, with the clear implication that it was routinely used as a past tense in the past. But although that "specifically past tense" sense is still there in contexts like I thought he might be insulting me (where we wouldn't use may), it doesn't apply with I think he might/may be insulting me, where both versions are effectively equivalent to me. Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 18:13
  • May and might in nineteenth century Irish English and English English benjamins.com/catalog/scl.67.10hat
    – user 66974
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 20:55
  • @Mari-LouA, it seems that, in modern English, we can only use "might + inf" in Conditional Type 2 & In reported speech, right? If we want to express past possibility, we have to use "might have PP" right?
    – Tom
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 10:33
  • You can also use "could" as in: "He could have arrived on time if he had woken earlier" But this has nothing to do with how "may" and "might" might have been used in the 17th, 18th or 19th century, so I don't really understand why you are asking.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 10:36
  • @Mari-LouA, Yes, Modals existed in Old English era. It is wrong to say "He might be late yesterday" in Modern English, we have to use "He might have been late" instead. But in the past, they used "He might be late yesterday"
    – Tom
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 11:47

1 Answer 1


"Might" was used somewhat more expansively in older English, as you can see from this search of the phrase "might have" in the King James Version of the Bible, first published in the year 1611:


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