May and Might

May and Might are modal verbs. Some people think they are interchangeable, especially in speech, but is there really no differences between these two?

May and Might in English Grammar

May and Might

In this lesson, we will study two modal verbs: may and might.
These two verbs are in most cases interchangeable and you can use them without a significant difference in meaning.

He may leave. = He might leave.

These sentences, both are used to guess a fact.

Spoken or Written?

'Might' is used more frequently in spoken English than 'may'.

May

'May' is a modal verb that is used to talk about:

  1. Possibility
  2. Politely asking/giving permission
  3. Expressing wishes

Possibility

May is used when we want to express a possibility. It shows that something perhaps has happened or has a possibility to happen.

-Why John has not arrived yet? -He may have missed his train.

here, there is a possibility of having missed the train for him.

Politely Asking Permission

May is used when we want to politely ask permission for doing something. Using 'May I...?' is more polite than using 'Can I...?' or 'Could I...?'
Use of 'may' in this way is very formal and very polite.

May I come in?

If you want to politely give permission to somebody, you can also use 'may'.

You may come in.

You can use 'may not' or 'mayn't' (spoken) not to allow somebody to do something.

You may not smoke cigarettes in the office.

Expressing Wishes

You can use 'may' to express wishes. In this function, you can only use 'may'.
'May' and 'might' are not interchangeable in this case.

May she rest in peace.

DO NOT say might she rest in peace.

May all your wishes come true.

DO NOT say might all your wishes come true.

Might

Might is a modal verb that is similar to may. It has similar functions as may. It is used for:

  1. Possibility
  2. Asking permission politely

Possibility

'Might' is similar to the first function of 'may', which is expressing possibility. But the difference is that with 'might' the possibility is less likely. It is more remote, the chances are smaller.

He might get there in time, but I can't be sure.

Asking permission politely

Especially in British English, 'might' is used for politely asking permission to do something. But, it is very rare and very formal.

Might I use your phone?

Giving Permission.

You cannot use 'might' to give permission.

'Maybe' and 'May be'

If you write 'maybe' without space between the two words, it is a one-word adverb meaning 'perhaps'.
But, if you write 'may be' as two words, it is not an adverb anymore and it is a modal verb plus the verb be.

Maybe he'll come, maybe he won't.

It may be snowing tomorrow.

Past Possibility

If you're not sure that something has happened in the past, it's better to use 'might'. You can use 'may', too, but since 'might' is the past tense of 'may', you can use 'might'.
After 'might' in this use, you should use a past perfect tense after your modals.

I might have left my umbrella at the train station.

In this example, you're not sure that something has happened in the past.

My response may have hurt some people.

Review

'May' and 'might' are used widely in English to talk about possibilities and to politely ask or give permission. The only difference between 'may' and 'might' is that "may" can be used to express wishes, while "might" cannot. Remember 'might' cannot be used to give permission.

may might
possibility It may rain today. It might rain today.
ask permission May I stand here? Might I open your bag?
give permission You may use my car if yours is broken. ___
express wishes May this special day give you countless fond memories. ___

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