I Wish I May, I Wish I Might

There seems to be some confusion about the use of “may” and “might.” Increasingly, we see the former supplanting the latter. Yet the latter is the better choice when talking about a situation that exists only in the imagination or is less likely.

Correct example: “If I had been standing right under the bookshelf when it fell, the Oxford English Dictionary might have smashed my skull.” Because this is a hypothetical scenario that is unlikely, we wouldn’t want to use may here. Yet we see this construction increasingly. We also see “may” used for the past tense, when “might” is the better choice.

The word “may” is perhaps overused because we’ve all been corrected incessantly as children when we’ve asked whether we can do something and have been told that we may (or may not, depending on the absurdity of the request and/or the draconian nature of the askee). So we all know that the correct word in this scenario is “may”: “May I eat all of the butter in the house?” (Actually, we could correctly use might in this construction, but that would be exceedingly formal and bring to mind a Victorian child.)

So we use “may” when it is not warranted, simply to escape potential ferruling or verbal chastisement.

We would properly use “might” if we were to say, “She might eat all the butter in the house today.” We know her and her butter-eating ways, so it is possible; however, we also know that we just stocked the fridge with eight pounds, so this event is not likely to come to pass. We may rest assured that if it does, she might expire from cardiac arrest within moments of the last greasy bite.

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