1

Although might may have become the main exponent of epistemic possibility in every day spoken English, it is generally not synonymous with may, as the following example, borrowed from Charreyre (1984: 55-56) illustrates:

in Just look at the sky! There might be a storm soon, uttered in front of a threatening sky, it would be contextually less appropriate, Charreyre suggests, to use may instead of might, while will would be perfectly acceptable. May would convey very little information and simply express the logical, theoretical and objective possibility that such a sky is likely to bring about a storm, which is obvious. Might, on the other hand, carries some appreciation on the part of the speaker that, although a storm may not be wished for, yet it must not be ruled out.

-- Towards a contextual micro-analysis of the non-equivalence of might and could by Stephane Gresset

Claude Charreyre is a French linguist, but I'm not sure his assessment on might vs. may can represent how a native speaker of English would think about it.

Do you think his conclusion was stretching it? Why?

  • This is pretty deep stuff. Is it from the forbidden section? / While I'd agree that 'may' and 'might' here are not exact synonyms, I'd say that most Anglophones would treat them as such except for register / idiomaticity. In fact, most Brits would use 'could' or 'There's going to be'. – Edwin Ashworth May 11 '18 at 14:46
  • Forbidden section? No, it was quoted in Gresset's paper. – Kinzle B May 11 '18 at 14:51
  • 1
    As a Brit, "It may rain later" and "It might rain later" express exactly the same sentiment. However "You might kill me" and "You may kill me" are very different! "May " is generally only used where the meaning is unambiguous. – JeffUK May 11 '18 at 14:54
  • 1
    @JohnLawler Source added – Kinzle B May 11 '18 at 14:59
  • 1
    @KinzleB: Thank you very much; that's an excellent source, though many of the theories are a bit overelaborated. Still, that's the norm in the field. The fact -- which a perusal of the contents will show -- is that every facile English speaker has their own arrangement of modal auxiliaries and verbal constructions with modal senses (if not modal verbs per se, like be going to and have to), and if they're at all good at using them, they already have their own way of arranging them into idioms. Which vary from person to person and group to group, as idioms do. No basic rules yet. – John Lawler May 11 '18 at 18:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.