I was interested in the following sentence which appeared in an article titled “Rethinking the Afghanistan War’s What-Ifs" by David E. Sanger in The New York Times (July 31, 2010).

The British spent a century arguing over whether a lighter hand or devastating military might could have put down the American Revolution.

I'm already confused about differences between might usage and could usage, but the chaos explodes in my mind when I see they together.

According to this Kosmonaut's answer, I should reword "might could have put down" with "might be able to have put down", but I'm not sure on this correction because this fragment does not make sense to my ear.

Indeed, I would drop "might" and I would reword the sentence as follow:

The British spent a century arguing over whether a lighter hand or devastating military could have put down the American Revolution.

Can someone clarify if the fragment "might could have put down" could be reworded dropping "might" without changes in meaning? Or, is it right what Kosmonaut said?

  • possible duplicate of Is "might could" a correct construction? – tchrist Jun 10 '12 at 13:26
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    @tchrist: It's only peripherally related in that OP here has mis-parsed his sentence and falsely assumed some semantic connection between might and could here. By all means, vote to close as General Reference (too basic), but it's definitely not a dup. – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '12 at 15:23
  • @FumbleFingers Eek, you’re right. It’s merely a misparse; I can’t change my close vote, unfortunately. I did add stuff about military might in my new answer. Now I have two that are too close. I was planning on deleting this one. – tchrist Jun 10 '12 at 15:24
  • @tchrist: We'd best draw a veil over this one and assume both you and John are still recovering from some exuberant Saturday night celebrations! – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '12 at 15:28

The issue here is nothing to do with the might/could distinction - it's simply that OP has misunderstood "military might", which in this context means "military power".

Although it would be stylistically appalling, there's nothing grammatically wrong with...

... whether ... devastating military might might have put down the Revolution.

...but arguably a careful writer might (could?!) avoid the potential for confusion by writing...

... whether ... devastating military force could have put down the Revolution.


Might and could are both modals, and by the usual rules they can't go together. So your brain exploded for a good reason.

However, might could survives as a regionalism in the USA; it simply expresses a bit more possibility than either might or could alone.

I'm a bit surprised to find it in the New York Times, though; they generally don't use regional expressions unless they're making a regional point, and the British are not from the region where might could is used, as far as I know.

  • Thank you John for your answer, +1. ("might could" has 1k results in the NYT!) – Elberich Schneider Jun 10 '12 at 13:36
  • John, see some of the references I give in my answer. I’m also surprised by the NYT, because it doesn’t sound “standard” to me. The scholarly reference I cite at the bottom does observe that (some) double modals have begun to emerge from dialect literature in the “last decade” (from the perspective of having been written in 1995), presumably into mainstream standard writing. Curious. – tchrist Jun 10 '12 at 13:57
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    @John: I'm sure if you reconsider the NYT phrasing in light of my answer you'll agree it's not an example of that regionalism at all - simply an accidental collocation of might=power,force with modal could. – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '12 at 15:25
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    @FumbleFingers When I checked the NYT and the Economist for apparent double-modals, I was hard-pressed to find any outside of comments that were not false positives of this sort. – tchrist Jun 10 '12 at 15:26

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