ESL grammar · Grammar · Modal verb · tenses · Verb

Modals: May and Might

By Jacqueline Schaalje

come round

Native speakers use lots of modals throughout their speech, but non-natives often find this rather difficult.

So let’s practise a bit more. This week I happened to receive an email in which one reader asked me about modals, and a student of mine asked me to go over some modals with him. I’ll give you the exercise that I did with my student.

May and might is basically the same.

You can use may and might for the present, the future and the past.

  • So I can say: I may go to my parents this weekend.

Or: I might go see my parents this weekend.

It’s the same.

  • I can say: There may be a few spelling mistakes in that email.

Or: There might be a few spelling mistakes in that email.

Same meaning.

The same with facts that may or may not be true:

  • We might all have some Neanderthal DNA in our blood.

Or: We may all have some Neanderthal DNA in our blood.

Same again.

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Saying Something in the Past? Use Might.

In case you started saying something in the past, or something you’re saying clearly happened in the past, you can use only might. (Because might is a past version of may.)

Here are some examples of that:

  • I thought my sister might help me with that.

I started this sentence in the past (“thought”), so I need to continue with might.

May would be wrong here.

  • Yesterday Trevor said he might give me that report today.

This may look a bit strange to you, because of the yesterday and today in the same sentence. Why do you need to say “might” here? Because Trevor said something yesterday. So that’s in the past. I need to continue the sentence in the past, so with might and not may. If you’re interested learning more about reported speech, have a look here.

  • Didi didn’t like green. Her parents knew that. So they could have known that she might not like to get a green sweater for her birthday.

All this clearly happened in the past. So I need to use might and not may.

May/Might and Present Perfect 

If you want to describe something that might have been true in the past, you should use may/might and present perfect (a combination of the two):

Here is an example of a fact that clearly happened in the past, and might have been true or not (in the past):

  • Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens might have lived in the same villages thousands of years ago.

Or:

Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens may have lived in the same villages thousands of years ago.

When I use the combination with have + V3 in present perfect, I can use may or might again. There is no difference between the two.

By the way, you can’t use may/might has + V3, because after a modal you must use an infinitive (the basic form of the verb).  Or if you’d like to remember this in a different way, has can never be the second verb in a sentence.

Here are two other examples of may/might have + V3:

  • Those mosquitoes may have come from the neighbour’s swimming pool.

Is the same as: Those mosquitoes might have come from the neighbour’s swimming pool.

  • Sean might have finished writing that essay by now.

Or: Sean may have finished writing that essay by now.

The problem of You May when it means Permission

In some cases it doesn’t sound good when you use “you may” (or “we may”) with present perfect, because when you say you may it often means that you’re allowed to (= you can do something/you are permitted to do something).

So in this kind of sentence you can use only might, and not may.

Now compare these two sentences:

  • You might have been more careful with my car.
  • You might have thought she’d be more sensible.

In the first sentence I can only use might, because I don’t want this sentence to mean that you are allowed to be more careful.

In the second sentence, “You may have thought she’d be more sensible” would be okay too. Why? Because the meaning here clearly is not that you are allowed, but maybe you thought something. So may and might are both okay.

Quiz

Sorry, this won’t be a quiz with answers, but only possible answers, so I can’t put this one online, because the online answers have to be true or not true. When you’re done, I’ll give you some suggestions at the bottom of this page.

Your task: Think of a way to say the underneath sentences with may or might. In some cases you can use only might.

1 Maybe I’ll come round tonight.

2 It could be a good idea to invite Hella to the party.

3 It would be possible to hold a picnic in the park.

4 I’m not sure whether Sevorin has left the office.

5 Many bugs could be growing in your keyboard.

6 Perhaps we can start the meeting already, until we wait for more people to pour in. (pour in = arrive)

7 He said it looked as if it had rained while we were away.

8 They could be in a romantic relationship or they could just live together.

9 Both seem to be equally plausible.*

*See Word to the Wise

Answers at the bottom of this page.

For more quizzes and articles about modals please have a look here:

Mixed Tenses with Modals

Modal Perfect Tense

Giving Advice – Clears up about Could, Should and Would

Ought to – When and How to Use 

Answers to the quiz:

1 I might come round tonight. Or: I may come round tonight.

2 It may be a good idea to invite Hella to the party. Or: It might be a good idea…

3 It might be possible to hold a picnic in the park. Or: It may be possible…

4 Sevorin may have left the office. Or: Sevorin might have left the office.

5 Many bugs might be growing in your keyboard. Or: Many bugs may be growing…

6 Perhaps we might start the meeting already, until we wait for more people to pour in. Don’t use may here, because otherwise we can understand that it is not allowed to start the meeting already, which isn’t the meaning here.

7 He said it might have rained while we were away. You can only use might, and not may, because this sentence is in the past.

8 They may be in a romantic relationship or they might just live together. If you’d like to avoid any possible ambiguities (unclear meanings), use might in both parts of the sentence. Then we can’t interpret this sentence as that the friends are allowed to live together.

9 Both might be equally plausible. Or: Both may be equally plausible.

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