May vs. Might: When to Use Might vs. May with Useful Examples

Modal verbs, in general, can cause a lot of confusion. When it comes to choosing between two specific verbs, such as may vs. might, things get even more complicated. Many writers find themselves pausing for a moment to consider which of them would be a correct fit in their sentence. In addition, many people, especially when they are speaking, tend to use these two words interchangeably. But can we really do that? And if we can’t, what are the rules for the use of may vs. might?

May vs. Might: Understanding the Basics

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Key Takeaways

  • Usage of ‘May’ and ‘Might’: We use ‘may’ to indicate a greater possibility of something happening in the present or future. On the other hand, ‘might’ suggests a lower probability and is often used for hypothetical situations, particularly in the past.
  • Formality and Definiteness: ‘May’ is seen as more formal and definite. For example, if we request permission, we typically say, “May I leave early?” rather than “Might I leave early?” because we’re seeking a definite response.
  • Speculative Situations: For less likely present or future possibilities, we lean towards using ‘might’. It reflects our uncertainty about the event occurring. For instance, “I might go to the party if I finish work early,” implies that going to the party is not certain.

May vs. Might: The Definitions

When we discuss possibilities in English, we often use the modal verbs may and might. Though they appear quite similar, there are subtle differences in their usage that are important for us to grasp.

May

  • Present Possibility: We use may when we want to express something that is possible at the present moment or in the future.
    • Example: We may go to the beach if it’s sunny.
  • Permission: We also use may to ask for or give permission.
    • Example: You may leave early if you finish your work.

Might

  • Past Possibility: We often reserve might for situations where we’re referring to a hypothetical situation in the past.
    • Example: We might have gone to the beach, but it was raining.
  • Lower Probability: Might can also indicate a lower probability of something happening compared to may.
    • Example: I might try that new restaurant—there’s only a slim chance I’ll go.

May vs. Might: the Differences

Both may and might refer to an event that is possible or probable to happen. However, the first difference is that may should be used when you are talking about a possible event or an event that could be factual. In contrast, might refers to events that are hypothetical or possible but very unlikely.

For example, when you say, “If you get ready in five minutes, you MIGHT be able to catch your plane”, you need to use might because the situation you are describing is hypothetical. Similarly, you need to use might when you say, “If I ever have a million dollars, I MIGHT buy a yacht”: the situation here is possible but, unfortunately, unlikely.

On the other hand, if you say, “I MAY go to the cinema after dinner”, you are talking about something that is very possible to happen. Following the same logic, if one of your colleagues is late to work almost every day, you will need to use may when you tell him, “You MAY lose your job”.

The second difference is that may is the verb in the present tense, while might is the same verb but in the past tense. So, depending on the tense you’re using in your sentence, you can easily determine which will be the correct word to go with. For example, in the sentence, “Gabrielle MAY cook dinner for our whole group of friends tonight”may is used because the whole sentence is in the present tense. But in the sentence, “Jimmy MIGHT have tried to contact me earlier, but my phone was switched off”, you need to use might because the sentence is in the past tense.

The next question is, can you replace might have with may have? Though there isn’t a strict rule about it, it’s generally believed that might have is best to use in the past tense. When you speak or write an informal text, you don’t have to worry about it. But if you’re preparing a text for a professional audience, you should be careful. Therefore, only sentences such as, “If I hadn’t been so busy yesterday, I MIGHT have given you a call” will be acceptable.

Finally, what do you do when you’re asking permission? Though you’d come across may more often, you can use both words interchangeably. So, you can say either, “MAY I ask you something?” or “MIGHT I buy this t-shirt?”.

Still, with asking permission, there’s one thing you should keep in mind: sometimes using may instead of might will create confusion. For example, what exactly do you mean when you say, “I MAY not go out tomorrow”? There are two possible meanings. You either mean that you aren’t allowed to go out tomorrow, or that you might not go out tomorrow, i.e. there is a chance that you won’t. To avoid misunderstandings, it’s better to use might.

To sum up, even though may and might have their similarities, it’s good to know the differences between them and remember that these two words cannot be used interchangeably. So, may goes with situations that are or could be possible, while might goes with more hypothetical and less probably situations. And if you’re saying that there’s a possibility of something not happening, you should use might to avoid confusion.

May vs. Might Examples

Examples of “May”

  • You may leave the room once you have finished the test.
  • She may come to the party if she gets off work early.
  • The weather forecast said it may rain tomorrow.
  • Students may use the library for study after school hours.
  • You may feel a little discomfort during the procedure.

Examples of “Might”

  • He might go on vacation next month, but he hasn’t decided yet.
  • If you ask her, she might help you with your project.
  • There might be a few tickets left at the box office.
  • might have left my keys in the car; I should go check.
  • They might not make it to the meeting on time because of traffic.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main difference between “may” and “might”?

  • May is used to indicate a likelihood or possibility in the present or future.
  • Might suggests a lower possibility and is often used for hypothetical situations or the past.

Can “may” and “might” be used interchangeably?

  • Although they can sometimes be used interchangeably in casual conversation, it’s better to choose the one that matches the degree of possibility you want to express.

Is it ever correct to use “may have” for past situations?

  • “May have” is used when you’re considering a possibility that could have happened in the past, but you’re not sure if it did.

How do we decide between “may” or “might” in a sentence?

  • Assess the likelihood of the event. If it feels more probable or to seek permission, use “may”. If it’s a lower chance or a speculative situation, go for “might”.
Word Use Case
May Present or future possibilities, asking for permission
Might Lower probability, hypothetical scenarios, past tense indirectness

Remember, our choice between “may” and “might” often reflects the degree of certainty we want to convey to our readers or listeners.