This lesson helps us understand how all the usages of may and might in English and how they are different from each other.
The use of may are common in the following situations:
- To talk about the possibility of an event
- To take permission
- To give permission
- Express a wish
Possibility of an event
One of the most common uses of may is to talk about the possibility of an event or a situation.
Using may here means that something is possibly true or is in a certain way, but we are not certain about it. The modal may here indicates that we are leaning towards a situation being true or in a certain way, but we are not absolutely sure about it. If we were, we would not use may in the first place.
Let’s study some examples to understand this use of may.
- Bring a laptop along. We may need it at the meeting.
I, the speaker, here, think that it’s going to happen: we are actually going to need it. Am I a hundred percent sure about it? Probably not. Would I bet my house on it happening? Probably, I wouldn’t. But I strongly feel that we are going to need it.
- The management may give you the lead on the next project. Be prepared.
Are you, for sure, going to get the lead? Not really. But are the chances good? Absolutely. This is what we need to understand here. We are talking about the possibility of an event. To us, the chances of it happening look good, but we are not sure about it.
NOTE: When we are sure about the happening of an event or situation being a certain way, we use the regular auxiliary verb or just the main verb depending upon what the tense requires, not the modal auxiliary verb.
Certain: Bring a laptop along. We need it in the meeting.
Not completely certain or positive: Bring a laptop along. We may need it at the meeting.
Certain: The management will give you the lead on the next project. Be prepared.
Not completely certain or positive: Bring a laptop along. We may need it at the meeting.
- I may need your car tomorrow. Keep it clean and ready.
- The rain may stop the match today.
- The cause of his death may be due to excessive drinking.
- Jacob may also have a thing for you. Why don’t you ask him out?
- Daniel may be upset with me.
To take or give permission
The use of may while both taking and giving permission is considered very polite and formal.
- May I sleep here for a night?
- May I take your daughter out on a date, sir? We’ll come back before it gets dark.
- May I take a sip of water from your bottle?
- May I take the day off tomorrow?
- It’s about to get dark in some time. You may go now.
- You may work from your place if you want to, at least for a couple of days.
- You may speak now.
Asking for permission and being denied
Tom: May I stay here for a couple of days? I’ll be on my way out soon.
Max: No, you may not. I can’t have a stranger living with my kids at my place.
Student: I need something for the test, miss. May I go out and get it?
Teacher: You may not. Use what you got.
Expressing a wish
May is often used to express or make a wish. When it happens, it comes before (the beginning of the sentence) the subject.
- May God bless you with everything you want.
- May you live a healthy and peaceful life.
- May her soul rest in peace.
- May God save us from evil and lead us toward a good life.
The uses of might are common in the following situations:
- Possibility of an event
- The past form of may in indirect speech
- To show regret and criticism
We commonly use might to refer to the possibility of an event. Note that the possibility of the event it refers to is slightly lesser than the possibility may indicates. Grammatically, the possibility of an event with the use of might is considered a little negative. Note that it’s a grammatical difference; the intonation of your voice and the countenance of your face might balance the difference out.
- It’s quite late. They might not show up now.
- The company might call you tomorrow. The final list of employees hasn’t been made yet. (not very positive when saying it)
- Don’t enter from the main gate. The dog might bark at you and bite you.
- The food might have gotten cold. It’s been lying here for some time.
- We might still lose the match. Don’t be overconfident.
To take permission
Though possible and grammatical, it is not very common in modern English to use might for taking permission. Calling it archaic would be a stretch, but it is considered highly formal.
- Might I use your cabin for some time?
- John, my laptop just stopped working. Might I use yours for a meeting?
- Might we ask you some questions? They could really help us with this project.
- Might I ask your wife some questions?
NOTE: Avoid using might to take permission, use may instead. Also, note that we don’t use might to allow someone (give permission) for something. It is not a common practice in modern English.
Ashish: Might I sit next to you?
Mangesh (odd): Yes, you might.
Mangesh (correct): Yes, sure.
The past form of MAY
When a sentence having may is changed from direct speech to indirect speech, we change may into might. May is changed into might when the sentence changes its speech from direct to indirect.
Direct speech: Alan said, “we may still get the deal”.
Indirect speech: Alan said that we might still get the deal.
Direct speech: “The food may be spiked”, he said.
Indirect speech: Alan said that the food might be spiked.
Direct speech: “We may have a problem here”, she said to Jon.
Indirect speech: She told Jon that they might have a problem there
To show regret and criticism
One of the usages of might is to show regret about past actions or situations or to criticize someone for a past action.
- We might have gotten the deal if we hadn’t made the director angry. (regretting what we did in the past)
- If I had reached there on time, I might have saved him from going to jail. (regretting a past situation)
- She might have forgiven you if you had apologized to her honestly. (criticizing someone)
- You might have cracked the test if you had studied well. (criticizing someone)
NOTE: We, sometimes, use MIGHT/MAY to give a suggestion, advice, or warning, usually might.
To give indirect orders, suggestions, and advice, we use MIGHT.
- The chair you’re about to sit on is very dirty. You might wanna clean it first. (Advice)
- You might not wanna talk to him right now. He’s in a very bad mood. (Advice)
- You might not want to see him right now. He’s not in his senses and can harm others. (warning)
POINTS TO NOTE
MIGHT is not used for giving permission
When referring to the negative possibility of an event, use might. Using may here would confuse your reader/listener in terms of whether it’s referring to a possibility or permission. When giving permission, strictly use may. Do this as a simple rule of thumb to avoid confusion in terms of whether the modal shows possibility or permission.
- She may not leave early. (you don’t have permission to leave early)
- She might not leave early. (there are chances that she does not do it: leave early)
Past possibilities (to speculate)
The expression ‘might have + past participle’ is used when talking about past possibilities, to speculate it (guess).
I don’t think she ghosted us. She might have been busy with something. Else, she definitely would have picked up our calls.
Someone did not pick up our calls in the past, and we don’t exactly know why. So, we are guessing what the reason could be for that.
It was her first day on the job, and she came late. She seems like a responsible person. I think she might have gotten stuck in traffic. The route is usually crowded.
The subject, in the sentence, is guessing why something happened in the past. They are speculating about the event.
- You should not have insulted him. He might have gotten you fired. You are lucky you still got your job.
- He may not have done it himself, but he was definitely involved in the robbery.
- The car looks clean today. Jon may have washed it.
May and Might in conditional sentences
Both may and might are used in conditional sentences. They both refer to the possibility of an event here.
- If we talk to your father, we may get entry to the auditorium.
- If you were taller, they might hire you for this job.
- He may have been saved if he had been taken to the hospital earlier.
- If I participated in the competition, I might actually win it.
- If you explain everything to your father honestly, he might forget you.
- If I had apologized to her, she might have forgotten me.
NOTE: The modal may is usually not used in type 3 conditional sentences.
Use may, not might, to give permission
- You may go now.
- If you have finished eating, you may use your phone.
- You may not live here unless you pay the last month’s rent.
- We may perform here. I have talked to the general already.
But using may to talk about having permission for something or not can confuse your readers. Study the following example:
We may park the car outside this building.
What do you mean here? Do you mean ‘we have permission to park the car outside this building’ or do you mean ‘there is a possibility that we park the car outside this building’? 🤔
It is not clear if you are talking about having permission for something or showing a possibility of an event. This is a problem with using may here as it can refer to both a possibility and permission.
In such cases, using might helps you give clarity about the situation.
We might park the car outside this building.
Now, the sentence makes it clear that the speaker is referring to the possibility of the situation as we don’t use might to give permission or to show that you have permission for something. But still, there are two problems with using might here:
- It does not refer to a positive possibility.
- We can’t use it to talk about having or not having permission.
So, what’s the solution?😦
Use the modal can or could if you want to talk about having or not having permission, and when you are referring to the possibility of a situation, make sure you provide enough information so that the context of the sentence makes your readers understand that you are talking about the possibility of a situation, not about having or giving permission.
- We may park the car outside this building. The place looks safe and clean. (possibility)
- We can park the car outside this building. I have talked to the owner of the building already. (permission)
we can’t use may and might interchangeably. Both modal verbs have different reasons why we use them. In informal conversations, you would get away with using them interchangeably as the situations both modal verbs are used in are almost similar.
But to establish effective communication and be grammatically correct, use them in their specific situations.
- To have a thing for someone = to like feelings for someone (romantic)
- Ask someone out = to invite someone to go on a date with you, especially to spend quality time together and develop or foster a romantic relationship with the person
- Be on your way out: to leave a place
Now, we know how and where to use May and Might in English and how they are similar and different from each other. Feel free to share your question, doubt, or feedback in the comment section, and also, share the post with the people that need it.
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