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The man may have died a week ago in a car accident, but his legacy will long change the world for the better.

When we know for sure that the man actually died a week ago in a car accident, can we still say the above sentence in that way? If so, what does “may have died” mean in that sentence?

I’m asking that because I think that “May have/has + verb” has always an uncertainty in its meaning. But if the above sentence is correct, then there should be other meaning to it that I don’t know.

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    Oxford Languages: may used when admitting that something is so before making another, more important point. "they may have been old-fashioned but they were excellent teachers"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 24 at 8:21
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    There is no uncertainty here, just contrast. Read it as It is true that this man died, but...
    – fev
    Commented May 24 at 9:35
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    “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.” (Winston Churchill)
    – Dan
    Commented May 24 at 10:03
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    While the meaning is well established, it's perhaps not always the best choice of words with something that's absolutely positively definitely true and arguably just as important as what follows. It does invite a comeback: "'May be'? Is there some doubt?" Maybe keep it for "I may be drunk" not "He may be dead".
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 24 at 10:43
  • @Mari-LouA Your comment makes a good answer. Commented May 24 at 13:17

4 Answers 4

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may here is used in this sense:

You use may in statements where you are accepting the truth of a situation, but contrasting it with something that is more important.

I may be almost 50, but there aren't a lot of things I've forgotten.

[Collins Dictionary]

The contrast in your sentence is between death that is transient and legacy that will (supposedly) endure.

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    Yes. Though intrinsically, there are different degrees of certainty involved. The Collins example and OP's sentence show certainty, but 'Fermat may have proved his 'Last Theorem' many years ago as he claimed, but more recently a necessarily different proof has been accepted' shows an unspecified level of uncertainty. Commented May 24 at 12:30
  • Dictionaries list the different degrees of certainty you're talking about under different heads. OP's example is a concessive case of "may" as opposed to your FLT example, which is probabilistic. By the way, how do you mean necessarily in your comment? Do you mean the kind of math leading up to Wiles' proof was different than what Fermat knew and so the proof had to be different? Sorry this isn't relevant but I'm just interested.
    – user405662
    Commented May 24 at 14:10
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    Yes; elliptic curves had not been studied (in the required detail, at least) in Fermat's day. // The FLT example not being concessive may not apply if his claimed proof is found. Commented May 24 at 14:22
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You can read the construction as meaning

Although the man did die a week ago in a car accident, it is nevertheless the case that his legacy will long change the world for the better.

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The may-clause in that construction is concessive.

It may have been more expensive, but you'll be glad you spent the extra money when it doesn't fall apart after two uses.

The first clause there concedes that it was, indeed, more expensive. It is not an expression of doubt about how much it cost, and not a statement that there is a possibility that it cost more than others of its ilk. It did cost more.

There is also a form of clause that cannot stand alone as the clause above can, a subordinate concessive clause, and that form is typically introduced by a word like although. The subordinate clause concedes a fact that would seem to run counter to the assertion in the main clause:

Although it's very slow going on this narrow mountain road, we will reach our destination much sooner by taking this route.

-- How can that be? We're going only 15 miles an hour!

Because the nearest gap in the mountain range is 225 miles to the north, and we'll be across this mountain and down in about an hour.

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    You should probably explain a good deal more about "concessives" and their behaviors.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 25 at 16:54
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The man may have died a week ago in a car accident, but his legacy will long change the world for the better.

I think that type of phrasing is an example of misplaced subjunctive.

The supposition is applied to the main clause, where the fact of the man's death is a certainty, rather than to the conjunctive clause, where the persistence of his legacy is but a possibility.

The man has died a week ago in a car accident, but his legacy may well long change the world for the better.

This is the phrasing one would choose if one were, for example, translating it into clear French.

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  • Why do you think it's a misplaced subjunctive? Though it pain me to phrase it this way, concessives do normally take subjunctives.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 25 at 16:50
  • Mainly due to the point made by OP on the fact of this particular person's death. But also due to the inherent uncertainty/wish inherent in the the conjunctive clause. Concessives may take a subjunctive often. But surely not necessarily so.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 25 at 18:32
  • Interestingly, the original English phrasing is perfectly valid in Spanish too ('Puede que haya muerto, pero su legado cambiará el mundo'), while, according to Trunk, it's not in French.
    – RicardoGMC
    Commented Jun 3 at 8:59

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