How to use MAY, and the difference between MAY, MIGHT and COULD As it is a modal, MAY is always followed by the ‘bare infinitive’ of the verb. This means the infinitive without ‘to’. So we say ‘may be’, not ‘may. Might ‘May’ and ‘might’ are a bit easier. Besides being a request for permission, the word ‘may’ can also refer to something that is likely to happen. ‘Might’ has a similar meaning, but refers to something a bit less likely to happen. It’s a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. Let’s look at a few examples. Re: The differences between may be, might be, and could be In conversation, if you said 'could have', I would assume that you had the qualifications to enter the program. If you said 'may have' or 'might have', I would assume you were thinking about entering the program, but not that you were completely qualified. In this video I explain how to use the modal verbs Might May and Could. To be used in the flipped classroom format encouraging individual learning.
Might or May?What is the difference between 'might' and 'may'?
'Might' and 'may' can be used interchangeably when they express the idea of possibility. However, here are three considerations:
- (1) Many English speakers treat 'may' as more likely than 'might.' For example:
- Sarah may be present at the party. John might be present too. (Some people will consider Sarah's presence more likely than John's.)
- (2) Be aware that 'may' can express the idea of permission. When this creates ambiguity, use 'might.' For example:
- Sarah may use the swimming pool. (Does this mean 'Sarah might use the swimming pool' or does it mean 'Sarah is permitted to use the swimming pool'? When such ambiguity exists and you're seeking to express the idea of possibility, use 'might.')
- (3) Nowadays, 'might have' and 'may have' can also be used interchangeably, but historically (in the 19th century) 'might have' was more common. As a result, 'might have' still sounds more natural to some. For example:
- Sarah may have spoken to the CEO.
- Sarah might have spoken to the CEO. (Both of these are correct, but 'might have' sounds more natural to some.)
- I might go to the concert.
- I may go to the concert.
- May I go to the concert? (This means the same as 'Am I allowed to go to the concert?')
- I may go to the concert. (This is ambiguous. Does it mean 'I am allowed to go to the concert' or does it mean 'I might go to the concert'?)
- I might go to the concert.
- I am allowed to go to the concert.
- I might have cooked a lasagne if you hadn't called.
- I may have cooked a lasagne if you hadn't called. (This is not wrong, but it does not sound as natural to the native ear as the version above. This is especially true when the event did not occur. In this example, the lasagne did not get made.)
- The mites may have caused the infection. (In this example, the author was keen to avoid 'mites might.')
Is 'May' More Likely Than 'Might'?Look at these two sentences:
However, be aware that some of your readers could treat 'may' as more likely than 'might.' In other words, with the first example above, they could treat the likelihood of you attending the concert as, let's say, a 40% possibility. However, with the second example (the one with 'may'), they could treat this as, let's say, a 60% possibility. You should not think of 'weighting the possibility' as the difference between 'might' and 'may' though — most people do not apply that idea these days.
Eliminate Ambiguity with 'May'Be aware that may can be used for permission.
Use 'Might' in the Past TenseNowadays, you can safely use 'might have' and 'may have' interchangeably. However, be aware that some pedants might insist that only 'might have' can be used in the past tense . To placate those people, you should opt for 'might have' over 'may have.'
They're Auxiliary (or Helping) Verbs'Might' and 'may' are classified as auxiliary verbs (also called 'helping verbs.' ('Can,' 'have,' 'would,' 'should,' and 'could' are also auxiliary verbs.) A helping verb accompanies another verb in order to help express its tense or mood.
Interactive ExerciseHere are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.
- Do you disagree with something on this page?
- Did you spot a typo?
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Everyday Grammar: May, Might, and Must
For VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.
This week's Everyday Grammar looks at how to use the modals may, must and might.
Modal verbs (called modals for short) are auxiliary verbs that express a speaker’s attitude and the strength of that attitude. There are about 17 modals in English. They have multiple meanings and sometimes overlap in ways that are confusing to English learners.
Today we will look at how we use these modals to express how certain, or sure, you are of something.
Degrees of certainty in the present and past
Grammar expert Betty Azar explains that these modals tell us how sure speakers are about what they are saying. Modal verbs list and uses examples.
A person who is 100 percent sure uses the verb be, as in, 'I am sick.'
If they are mostly sure, say 95 percent, they will use the modal must, as in, 'I must be sick.'
When speakers are about 50 percent sure, they will use the modals may, might, or could; as in 'I may be sick. I might be sick. I could be sick.'
Might as the past tense of may
Might is used as the past form of may. For example:
'I may take more pictures.' (This is a direct quote)
She said she might take more pictures. (This is reported speech)
Notice how may changed to might. Modals change to a past form in reported speech.
Yesterday we had a staff meeting. I looked around the room and noticed my co-worker Anna was not there. I asked, 'Where's Anna?' and got three answers from my co-workers.
Jonathan answered, 'Oh, she may be making a video in the studio.'
Kelly said, 'She might have stayed home today.'
Adam told us, 'She called me to say she was doing an interview at the Capitol this morning. So she must still be working over there.'
In this conversation, you can see a change from may to might.May shows the speaker is not sure in the present moment: 'She may be making a video.'May changes to might to express a possible state in the past: 'She might have stayed home.' Finally, must expresses a strong certainty: 'She must be working there.'
People today do not always follow these rules about present and past tense for may and might. You will hear both words to express the same degree of certainty. English speakers still express strong certainty in phrases like, 'It must be love.'
Listen for the wordmight in this song by The Cars.
You might think it's foolish
Or maybe it's untrue
You might think I'm crazy
But all I want is you
By using might, the singer is expressing about 50 percent certainty.
Degrees of uncertainty in the future
Now let's look at how we express certainty about the future.
My friend Andy has a test next week. He has studied very hard for months. I told him, 'You will do well on the test. Don't worry.' I believe with 100 percent certainty that Andy will pass the test.
On the other hand, Carrie, who has to take the same test, just began studying last week. I warned her, 'You might not do well on the test. You should study more this weekend.' I am not so sure that Carrie will pass. In fact, I doubt it. I express that future possibility with might.
May Might Could Possibility Difference Between Socialism
May is sometimes used to express hope
The idea of possible future events lets English speakers use may to talk about hopes. You will see may on greeting cards and in prayers or religious writings.
A quick look at Google Ngrams shows that few people are using may in this way. Now, it is much more common to hear 'I hope that.'
The group Celtic Woman sings of their wishes in 'May it Be:'
May it be an evening star,
Shines down upon you.
May it be when darkness falls,
Your heart will be true.
Traditional poems and prayers also use may to express positive sentiments. This is part of an old Irish blessing:
May Might Could Possibility Difference Calculator
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
With that in mind, the Everyday Grammar team says, 'May you find our articles useful.'
I’m Jill Robbins.
And I'm Adam Brock.
Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Adam Brock was the editor.
Words in This Story
certain - adj. not having any doubt about something; convinced or sure
positive - adj. thinking that a good result will happen: hopeful or optimistic
modal verb - a verb (such as can, could, shall, should, ought to, will, or would) that is usually used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility, necessity, and permission
auxiliary verb - a verb (such as have, be, may, do, shall, will, can, or must) that is used with another verb to show the verb's tense, to form a question, etc.
Now it’s your turn. Write a sentence using may, might, or must. We'll check your grammar in the Comments section.