A free glossary of writing terms from Scribendi.com.
So, you're in the middle of a sentence with your finger hovering over the m key, but you're not sure which word to use—may or might?
What's the difference between may and might, anyway?
Using may and might correctly is important—if you don't, you shall not pass.
Fear not! With the help of the great J.R.R. Tolkien, we've outlined the differences between may and might, and their proper usages, so you can get back to work.
May vs. Might: Which Word to Use
May and might are both modal auxiliary verbs.
Basically, they're helping verbs that modify main verbs. They express both an attitude and degrees of necessity and/or possibility. There are 10 in total: can, could, had, better, ought to, shall, will, would, and, you guessed it, may and might.
But one cannot simply use may and might interchangeably. There are a few key differences in standard usage, which we've outlined below.
1. Use may where circumstances are more likely.
Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.
Tolkien uses may and even the addition of well to highlight that his stance is highly possible.
2. Use might when presenting hypotheticals.
It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.
Frodo might be swept away, hypothetically.
3. Use might for the past tense or to express annoyance.
It might have been mine. It should be mine. Give it to me!
Since Boromir is annoyed and he refers to the past, Tolkien uses might.
4. Use may to add politeness to a request and when giving (or refusing) permission.
A sword rang as it was drawn. "Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may."
"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!"
May I hinder you? It is a polite request. Still, the answer remains: no, you may not!
5. Use might to clarify confusion between permission and possibility.
For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! It was brought within my grasp.
Galadriel requires permission from no man. The use of might highlights that Galadriel refers only to possibility.
That's what I'm Tolkien about! Now that you have these simple rules under your belt, you'll be able to eat common mistakes like these for second breakfast!
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