May and might

Posted on 3 February 2015 by Emily Stella

May and might: possibility

The most common use of may and might is to talk about possibility.

You may/might want to reconsider your recommendations.

(Possibly/perhaps you want to reconsider your recommendations.)

Most people don’t distinguish between may and might but, strictly speaking, there are differences. So if you’re particularly interested in grammar, or your reader is, you might find the rest of this section interesting.
 

Past, present and future tenses

Might is the past tense of may, so traditionally might was used to refer to possibility in the past; may was used for possibility in the present or future.

I might have taken notes at the meeting, if there hadn’t been someone else to do it. (past)

I may be the only person paying attention at this meeting. (present)

I may have to take notes at the meeting if there’s no one else to do it. (future)

 

Uncertainty

There’s a view among writing authorities that might indicates more uncertainty than may. Again, this distinction is lost in most cases, but some people consider might preferable in these situations:

1. You’re not sure whether something in the past happened or not.

Harry told us he had quit, but he might have been fired.

2. You’re referring to a hypothetical situation.

If I were Harry, I might be annoyed everyone is gossiping about me.

 
 

Asking for permission

When asking permission, you can use may or might. When giving or refusing permission, you have to use may.

May/might I take you out for a business lunch next week?

You may take me out for a business lunch next week.

Might is more formal than may in this context, though both are considered polite. Can is a less formal alternative but also less polite. I often use could (with please) as a happy medium when asking for something in a formal context – less stuffy that than might/may, more polite than can.
 

Reported speech

If you’re writing reported speech, change may to might.

Robert said, ‘I may need your help on this assignment.’

Robert said that he might need help on this assignment.