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The dictionaries are very clear as to the use of "may" to express a wish or a hope - and one can easily infer that a sense of future is always implied in such use. For example: "May she rest in peace"; "May you achieve all you wish"; "May the Force be with you". However, when it comes to expressing someone's wish or hope in a past situation, it seems to me the use of "might" - which would be a "natural substitute" to the word "may" - sounds somewhat strange. Let's take the following example: "I was going through the most difficult moment of my life. Might God help me!". Is the use of "might" correct in this sentence? If not, what would be the right way to express such hope/wish in the past?

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    @WS2 Are you happy with 'might' rather than 'may' there? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 at 16:49
  • Qu'à Dieu ne plaise. On ne prête qu'aux riches, malheureusement. – – Lambie Jun 24 at 14:22
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    @WS2 'May God help me!' is a fixed phrase, using a very special usage of 'may'. I don't believe 'might' is usable instead here: this is an idiom, in this case with restricted choice of tense. See TaliesinMerlin's final bolded assertion, and Lambie's answer. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 24 at 15:13
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    I believe that @Lambie and Edwin Ashworth have persuaded me I am wrong on this, so I am going to delete my comment and my answer below. The point is that "may" in this instance is not being used in the indicative mood - so does not have a past tense. (It does not gainsay the fact that "might" is the past of "may" when used indicatively.) I apologise if I have given you a wrong steer. – WS2 Jun 25 at 7:58
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    Effectively the only way I can think of saying what is intended in the final example of your question is "May God help me", I thought. – WS2 Jun 25 at 8:11
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I think a little grammatical clarity is needed:

First of all:

"May she rest in peace". is uttered at a present time. It is a spoken phrase.

In the unusual case that one wants to report on that (reported speech), one could say:

"She was laid gently in the grave so she might rest in peace."

In that instance, might is not really the past tense of may. As May [head word] in a sentence is not a modal verb. might rest in peace = have the possibility of resting in peace, is a modal and here, it is in the past tense.

Present tense: She may rest in peace if laid gently in the grave. Tricky wicky is what this is.

In in terms of the OP's question, let's put it in the present tense:

"I am going through the most difficult moment of my life. May God help me!".

That is grammatical. However, in the past tense, you can't just use might for may in the utterance as May [something occur] is an exhortation to express a wish or a hope and is not a modal verb as in:

  • He may arrive early tomorrow. [possibility] or
  • He might arrive early tomorrow. [also possibility but less likely]

To express May God help me! in direct speech in the past, one would have to use something like:

"I was going through the most difficult moment of my life. I asked for God's help!". OR "Would that God had helped me."

In sum:

  • may [verb] and might [verb] can be modals in the present referring to a future.

  • might can sometimes be used as a past tense of may in modal form.

  • may [something occur] can be a head word used to express hope or a wish (a formal usage). In this sense, there is no past tense for it and a workaround must be used.

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  • This is a very clear answer, taking this use of 'may' as a virtual imperative. I just have one small reservation. To the extent that the impossibility of altering the past (or time travel) is a logical but not a grammatical impossibility, you could use 'may' of the past. "May Iphigeneia not have died at Aulis" or "May the lockdown in the UK have been ordered two weeks before it was." Even though the though it is logical nonsense (because, if fulfilled, it must be true that "the lockdown in the UK was ordered two weeks before it was ordered" is both true and false), it is not ungrammatical. – Tuffy Jun 23 at 17:07
  • Zi don’t think so. That would be equivalent to not the Greek imperative/subjunctive but to the Greek optative with ‘eithe’ or ‘ei gar’) -i ‘if only’. That does not produce a logical contradiction. It does not, in a sense have a truth value at all. It is expresses a wish. – Tuffy Jun 23 at 17:25
  • @Tuffy What the heck has Greek got to do with it? Your grammar is faulty in both sentences. "May the lockdown in the UK have been ordered two weeks before it was." May and have been ordered [present perfect] do not work. If only the lockdown had been ordered two weeks before it was. is the idea. – Lambie Jun 23 at 22:20
  • I understand why you are puzzled. The idea that someone can will a past event not to have happened stretches the credulity for reasons I explained. But if someone (illogically) thought it possible, the sentence I have given is grammatically correct. It follows the sequence of tense. They are (now) willing that in the future it comes about that an event which has happened in the past will not have happened. – Tuffy Jun 23 at 22:30
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    @Tuffy Please don't do this. Your grammar in those sentences simply does not work in English and Greek is completely irrelevant, pedakimou. We also use (somewhat archaic): Would that the UK had ordered to lockdown before it did. [That is "to will a past event not to have happened." By the way, I am not puzzled at all. – Lambie Jun 23 at 22:52
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In short, making may into might doesn't make it clear when the wish was made, and so you'll need an alternative strategy (like direct speech) to make your intent clear.

May is indeed used to wish

The usage of may you're asking about expresses a hope or wish while inverting may and the subject. The Oxford English Dictionary documents this usage in def. 12 of "may, v.1":

  1. Used (with inversion of verb and subject) in exclamatory expressions of wish (synonymous with the simple present subjunctive, which (exc. poetic and rhetorically) it has superseded).

All of the quoted examples of this usage use may and not might, e.g.,

1986 B. Gilroy Frangipani House vii. 30 May your soul never wander and may you find eternal peace.

Might was historically used to wish (with a present tense context)

You're wondering whether, nonetheless, one could treat might as an ordinary past tense version of may to represent a past wish. On its face, using might in this way is possible, but it runs into an issue - might could already represent a wish in the present. The OED classifies a wishing usage with might under definition 24:

  1. Used (since Middle English with inversion of verb and subject) in exclamatory expressions of wish (sometimes when the realization of the wish is thought hardly possible). poetic. Perhaps Obsolete.

For instance:

1852 M. Arnold To Marguerite in Empedocles 97 Now round us spreads the watery plain—Oh might our marges meet again!

There is no sense of past tense in this particular usage of might, since the previous sentence is already in present tense.

Might is a lot less common for wishing today

Besides that, using might for wishing is a lot less common than using may in the same position. As an example when I did a search for "May_v God" in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I had dozens of results that expressed a wish on the first page. For "Might_v God," I had one result in total, from the comments section (now scrubbed from the web, but documented in COCA's database) of an opinion piece in Washington Monthly:

You get the government you deserve.? Our forefather? s got good government. We? ve got Bush. In surrendering our rights and freedoms we are descending into cowardice and captivity. Might God help us, for we are not helping ourselves.

Again, might is used in a present tense context: we are descending. I conclude that might, when used to wish, doesn't have a strong temporal sense.

Might doesn't draw the neat temporal distinction you want

All of this helps explain how I initially read your usage. It felt odd, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I think it's because, when I read "Might God help me!" I don't read it as past tense. I read it as you - right now, narrating a past event - wishing for God to help either you or (in context) your past self. If it's you wishing this, I don't see the need for might to draw a distinction in tense.

Maybe another difficulty is a function of "May God help me!" being an interjection or exclamation; I'll read it as pertaining to whoever is immediately saying it whether you use may or might. If you really want to express someone's wish in a past situation, you could make it clear that someone in the past was saying or thinking this by using a reporting verb. For example:

I was going through the most difficult moment of my life. 'May God help me!' I thought.

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  • I wonder why you make your answer so convoluted. Obviously, the OP's first problem lies in confusing May you [x] with: I may go. And in the sense of "I may go", one can say might instead of may, which is even less probable. – Lambie Jun 23 at 15:29
  • I don't follow what you think is obvious here. I didn't see OP using "I may go" or a similar form. I also don't think it's safe to assume that distinctions in usage between "I may go" and "I might go" necessarily pertain to wish-may and wish-might. I felt the need to show my work, and that includes examples. – TaliesinMerlin Jun 23 at 15:54

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