Tuesday, September 27, 2005

When 'Might' Makes Wrong

I blame all those moms and grade-school teachers who correct "Can I go to the bathroom?" to "May I go to the bathroom?" -- not for being wrong (it's a legitimate distinction), but for making us so vigilant about the "permission" connotation of may that we sometimes steer around the word in non-permission usages and crash into a misuse of might.

A minor problem is that might, according to some, expresses a lesser degree of probability than may. The big problem is "might have." "I may have left the keys in the car" leaves open the possibility that the keys are in the car. "I might have left the keys in the car" suggests that the catastrophe was averted, as in "I might have left the keys in the car . . . if you hadn't alerted me."

There are cases, as Bryan Garner points out, in which the issue of permission does present ambiguity. He points to "You may not come with me" as a case in which might would solve the problem. In general, however, use might, and especially might have, with caution.


14 comments:

Stephen Jones said...

I blame all those moms and grade-school teachers who correct "Can I go to the bathroom?" to "May I go to the bathroom?" -- not for being wrong (it's a legitimate distinction),
The only valid distinction is between the ignorantly pedantic, who think there is one, and the rest of the world that knows there isn't (even in American English).

"I might have left the keys in the car" suggests that the catastrophe was averted, as in "I might have left the keys in the car . . . if you hadn't alerted me."
Not without the 'if' clause it doesn't! Same applies to 'could'.

Bill said...

Yes, Stephen, all words mean all things. I was never one for the "may I" crap myself in speech, but of course it's technically different from "can I."

Not sure how you get around the fact that "might" is the past tense of "may."

Dr Zen said...

On can/may, I'm with Stephen. The distinction is unbearably pedantic.

On the other, there are quite simply two uses of might: one, as a possible state that could exist with a degree of probability further removed than "may", the other as an indication of a possible state that did not exist.

"I might have left the keys in the car" is perfectly possible for me. It means, tout court, it is possible that I left them there but perhaps not likely.

Perhaps it is an American English thing? American English has some few elements that are conservative. For instance, few in the UK would use the subjunctive. I'm in Australia, and here, too, people are just a bit more conservative. I do see "may" quite often where I would expect "might".

Bill said...

I might have gone to the party. (... if I had known about it.)

I may have gone to the party. (... if so, I drank so much I don't remember.)

Yes, it's a small point. That's what I do.

But, come on -- I have always said "Can I?" rather than "May I?," because I'm just not that prissy (I have also never said "lie down" when "lay down" would do), but I cannot imagine a level of written English so informal that one would use "can" to mean "has permission to."

Stephen Jones said...

Not sure how you get around the fact that "might" is the past tense of "may."

It isn't in modern English. Both 'may' and 'might' are modal auxiliaries, and modal auxiliaries are outside of the tense system.

'Might' is the distant version of 'may' (many descriptive grammarians also call 'finished' the distant tense of 'finish', since they do not accept that the distinction between the two tenses in English, 'past' and 'non-past' is primarily a difference in time). As such it would be used in reported speech when the rest of the verbs are back-shifted. This does not however means it is the past of 'may'.
'Might' does not convey permission - it is only used to estimate the possibility of an event occurring or having occurred (the technical term is that it only has epistemic modality, not deontic modality).

'May' and 'could' also have these meainings, and where they do you can substitute 'might' with no change of meaning - although I agree with you that it reduces the likelihood marginally.

A person in your position Bill really ought to have read one of the many descriptive grammars that have come out in the last thirty years (Leach and Svartik or Pullum & Huddleston, are considered the two standards). Does your doctor still look things up in Aristotle when you go for a diagnosis?



I cannot imagine a level of written English so informal that one would use "can" to mean "has permission to."

You don't have to imagine it Bill, you just have to look it up in Google. A Google search for
"can drive at the age of"
produces hits from, among others,
http://www.publications.parliament.uk
http://www.rotary3450.org
http://news.bbc.co.uk
http://www.metrokc.gov/

Here are a couple of more examples of 'can' used for permission: firstly, from the US State Department
http://travel.state.gov/
Most Canadian citizens and many citizens from Visa Waiver Program countries can come to the U.S. without a visa if they meet certain requirements.

and secondly from Berkely
http://are.berkeley.edu/
Fox wants preferential visa status so more Mexicans can enter the United States legally each year.

This last, just happens to be a reprint from an article in the "Washington Post" itself. You can try to argue that 'can' here is possibility, not permission, but I would tar you with another 'c' word if you did: 'casuistry'.

Bill said...

A real-world "might" example (from Clusterfuck Nation, the excellent James Kunstler blog). The first sentence, to me, strongly implies "... but, alas, it didn't":

Rita might have spared the nation's fourth biggest metroplex, and most of the chemical-cracking infrastructure on-shore around it. But clawing up between Beaumont and Lake Charles, she cut a path through the densest concentration of offshore oil and gas rigs in the whole Gulf of Mexico.

Krupa said...

That's a bad WP example.

Fox wants preferential visa status so more Mexicans will be able to enter the United States legally each year.

Fox wants preferential visa status so more Mexicans will be allowed to enter the United States legally each year.

I'm pretty sure the first is closer to the meaning of the sentence. In this example, permission actually equals ability (i.e.- the ability to enter the country legally)

Stephen Jones said...

Dear Krupa, what about all the other exapmles?

Stephen Jones said...

I agree with you on the particular example. Bad writing. I've read it three times and stil don't know if it did spare them or didn't.

Then there is the concessive 'might have'. "X might have won the election, but he has done nothing to address the counry's needs.

Then there is 'might have' used as a reproach "You might have called me!". Speaking, it's made clear by intonation.

Krupa said...

Oh I think the other examples are fine, I was just speaking up for Bill's integrity as a Washington Post copy editor.

Bridey Murphy said...

Speaking of pedantic....

"Modal auxiliaries"? "Epistemic modality"? I've been editing copy many a long year, and I'd never throw around such ridiculous terms (except possibly when I'm trying to scare an author).

Or are these merely correct terms, with very particular meanings that can't be expressed precisely by other words? I'd understand that. I feel the same way about "can," "may" and "might."

Bill said...

Heh. That expresses a thought that's been bouncing around my head recently: If descriptivists are so darn forgiving of every popular attempt at usage that even comes close to expressing its meaning, why don't they realize that copy editors mean something different than most people when they toss around terms such as "incorrect"?

Stephen Jones said...

"Modal auxiliaries"? "Epistemic modality"? I've been editing copy many a long year, and I'd never throw around such ridiculous terms (except possibly when I'm trying to scare an author).
Epistemic modality is a technical term not in everyday usage, though apposite to the use of 'may'in this thread, but to suggest that 'modal auxiliaries' is a 'ridiculous term' when you wouldn't even pass a two-week certificate to teach English as a Foreign Language without knowing it, suggests what I have long suspected: that most copy editors are a collection of ignorant charlatans that go around mauling other people's prose with no more theoretical background in language than the labourer they get to demolish their garden wall has in architecture. If I had spent 'many a long year' working in a field I was totally ignorant of the theoretical basics of, I would not be proudly trumpeting it all over the internet.

why don't they realize that copy editors mean something different than most people when they toss around terms such as "incorrect"?
But we do Bill; we are well aware that for a copy editor or language maven 'incorrect' means 'something that goes against one of my uninformed prejudices, or one I got off Miss Peabody when she taught me English at Junior High thirty years ago.' It's you guys that somehow think it means something else.

Bridey Murphy said...

You obviously didn't understand my response, Stephen, which for some reason I find less than astonishing. It was perfectly clear, and, indeed, Bill understood me.

I'm not going to defend myself otherwise, since I think you're kind of silly.

(Am I feeding a troll? Sorry about that. I'm done on this thread.)