I came across the following sentence while reading "A Clash of Kings" book by George R. R. Martin:

Whitetree was the fourth village they had passed, and it had been the same in all of them. The people were gone, vanished with their scant possessions and whatever animals they may have had. None of the villages showed any signs of having been attacked

Why is the "may" word used here instead of "might"? I thought that "may" can be used only in the present tense and have never seen it used in the past context

1 Answer 1


It's about dialects A and B, which are differentiated by reference to constructions like:

[1] I thought it might rain before we got home.

[2] I thought it may rain before we got home.

In the older Dialect A (which I speak) [2] is ungrammatical (just like *"I thought I can finish the book before I got home"): [1], with "might" is required.

In Dialect B, [2] is possible as well as [1]. In Dialect A, "might" is undoubtedly the preterite counterpart of "may", just as "could" is of "can" because it is the form required in backshift. In Dialect B there's no basis for retaining (from earlier stages of the language) the analysis of "might" as the preterite of "may": it must be a distinct lexeme.

One factor facilitating this linguistic change is that "might" even in Dialect A is hardly used in the primary sense of the preterite, to indicate past time: we usually say "was/were allowed" rather than "might" for past time permission, e.g. "He told me I/we might go".

  • Thank you for the answer. So, would I be right if I said that nowadays we can say "I thought it may rain before we got home" as well as "I thought I can finish the book before I got home"?
    – Denis
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:49
  • I read this article enago.com/academy/may-or-might where they say that "I thought I may go to the game" is incorrect, and now I'm really confused :(
    – Denis
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:52
  • Yes, as I said, those examples are acceptable to speakers of Dialect B.
    – BillJ
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:56
  • @Denis Quark and Svartvik did basic tests on acceptability, proving almost conclusively that until there is an artificially imposed legally binding standardisation of 'correct grammar' (and even this doesn't work as is seen in France), there are always going to be areas of divided usage in English (acceptable to some practises Anglophones but unacceptable to others). They came up with the equally unsatisfactory gradience model of acceptability (a sentence being say 40% acceptable). Nov 26, 2023 at 12:36
  • @Edwin Ashworth, I understand it. I'm more confused that different official sources provide different information on which grammar is correct, not mentioning specific regions or dialects
    – Denis
    Nov 26, 2023 at 12:45

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