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Commonly Confused Words: May Vs. Might


Is there a difference between these two words?

Both may and might are used to express possibility.

May comes from the Old English ‘mæg’ meaning ‘am able’, which in turn comes from the Proto-Germanic ‘mag’ (‘have power’), and the PIE ‘magh’ (‘to be able, have power’). The word was also used in Old English as a verb for making predictions.

Might comes from the Old English ‘mihte’ or ‘meahte’ and was originally used as the past tense formation of may (‘mæg’).

Today, traditionalists believe that may should only be used when referring to something that is currently happening (present tense), while might should only be in reference to something that has already happened (past tense).

Here are some examples of may used in the present tense:

  • I may stay late to get everything done before my holiday.
  • It may be cold outside, so wear layers.

Here are some examples of might used in the past tense:

  • He might have stopped in London on his way to Devon, but I can’t remember.
  • I think I might have ruffled some feathers with the speech I made last week.

However, most people rarely make this distinction anymore. Both of the following example sentences are fine in modern usage:

  • I might stay late to get everything done before my holiday.
  • I think I may have ruffled some feathers with the speech I made last week.

The important thing to remember when using may have and might have is the context of the situation you’re describing.

If the truth of whether or not something happened is still unknown, it’s fine to use either of the two words. For example:

  • I think I may have ruffled some feathers with the speech I made last week.
  • I think I might have ruffled some feathers with the speech I made last week.

If the event or situation you’re talking/writing about definitely did not happen, you should use might have. For example:

  • Her affair might have meant the end of their marriage, but he forgave her.
  • His failure to revise might have caused him to fail his exams, but he managed to scrape a pass.

Are there any tricks to help remember the difference between these words?

  • If in doubt, use might.
  • Both might and not end in T - use this to help you remember to use might when talking about a possibility that did not end up happening.

Where can I find other posts about easy-to-confuse words?

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary.


13 Oct 2015
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