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?

Intermediate
"May and Might" in English Grammar

'May' and 'might' are two modal verbs that talk about the possibility of something happening in a situation.

Tip!

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

May

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

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

Possibility

'May' is used when we want to express a possibility. It shows that there is a possibility that something will happen or be true but this is not certain.

I may be late, so don't wait for me.

Well, I may have been wrong.

Politely Asking/Giving 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...?'
The 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. or You may not.

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

You may not smoke cigarettes in the office.

using 'may' to ask for permission

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.

May all your wishes come true.

Suggesting Something

We can use 'may' in spoken English and in formal situations to say, ask, or suggest something in a polite way:

May I suggest that you consider asking a professional?

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
  3. Suggesting something

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.

I might be a few minutes late.

We use 'might' as the past tense of 'may' when we want to report that someone talked or thought about the possibility of something:

He said he might be able to help you.

We can also use 'might' to express a possibility in the past that did not actually happen.

He might have been killed.

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.

Suggesting Something

We can use 'might' to suggest politely what someone should do.

If you want to get annulment, you might consult your lawyer.

'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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