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In a narrative written in third person past tense, such as you'd find in most published books, can the phrase "may have" be used after verbs like "thought" or "said"? As a native English speaker,

  • she never thought he may have done it

sounds wrong to me, but I'm struggling to explain why.

After some quick Google searches -- most of which led me back to this website -- I've ascertained that this has something to do with backshifting "may" into the past tense, but I can't figure out if "might have" is the only acceptable construction here, or if "may have" is grammatically correct as well.

I'm aware that many of these distinctions fall away in colloquial English, but I am concerned with how these verbs would be used in grammatically correct narrative writing.

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  • I'd choose 'might' here (though [like 'may'] it does carry an ambiguity if context doesn't intervene: 'She never thought he might have done it [and not the man the police had arrested]' {uncertain as to whether he did} // 'She never thought he might have done it [had she not done it herself]' {he certainly didn't do it}.) The choice of 'might' probably fits better with my internal feeling for tense/timeframe alignment. However, I'd say 'may', though suboptimal, is not ungrammatical here. Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 10:37

2 Answers 2

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she never thought he may have done it

In this example, "he may have done it." is awkward and usually viewed as being wrong.

"he may have done it" is, to all intents and purposes, reported speech (a content clause), and this is usually backshifted.

She never thinks, "He may have done it.", gives us "She never thought [that] he might have done it"

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  • Can you add support for 'usually viewed as being wrong'? Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 11:10
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'May' and 'might' are both used to talk about possibility.

He may sell the house. He might sell the house.

We use 'may' or 'might' to refer to possibility in the present and future. So we can use both 'might have' and 'may have' in the past tense.

(Some people still think that only 'might have' can be used in the past.)

Nowadays 'may have' and 'might have' are both interchangeable.

You may have tidied your room. You might have tidied your room.

[ 'Might' is the past of 'may'. We use 'might' as the past form of 'may' in indirect speech.

She said, 'I may be late.'

She said that she might be late. ]

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  • This is a pet peeve of mine. I maintain that if something may have happened, we don't know whether it did or not - If it might have happened, it could have but didn't. Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 12:12
  • I'm repeating my comment to another answer of yours: None of your examples is applicable in the OP's context.
    – m.a.a.
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 10:09
  • @Kate: Collins licenses the alternative sense: 'You use might or may with have to say that it is possible that something happened in the past, but you do not know whether it happened or not. • Jorge didn't play well. He might have been feeling tired. / • I may have been a little unfair to you.' //// The other reading of 'it might have happened' [ '... but it didn't'] is equally available. Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 10:27
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    @Edwin - My pet peeve is when newspapers say "If this had not happened, he may not have died" when the unfortunate person did die. Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 13:13
  • @Kate Yes; as usual, some examples work less well than others that differ only slightly. Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 14:35

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