May vs. Might

Q: “I may go to the store.” “I might go to the store.” Is there a difference between these two sentences? I’ve always been confused as to when to use “may” and when to use “might”? —Joe A.

A: Both “may” and “might” have the same overall meaning, yes, but both indicate different verb moods. Choosing one over the other will tell readers how likely you are to actually do the action or, as in your question’s example, go to the store.

“May” indicates that you are more likely to do something. I may go to the store means I probably will go to the store. “Might” suggests that you are less likely to do something. I might go to the store means it’s unlikely that I’ll go to the store. So while I may dance the hokey pokey with my daughters tonight (something we do most nights), I might hang up my clean clothes in my closet (something my wife claims I haven’t accomplished in five years).

Although this rule seems pretty cut-and-dried, it has a few exceptions worth noting. According to Garner’s Modern American Usage (a bible for all grammar nuts like me), you should never use “may” in a negative hypothetical because the reader could read it to mean the person “does not have permission.” For example, saying “I may not go to the store” could be misread as “I am not allowed to go to the store.” In this case, you always use “might”: I might not go to the store.

Also, and even more confusing, “might” is the past tense of “may.” So if the event is in the past, the mood implication doesn’t matter and you always use “might.” My wife might have gone to the store last night. I might have pulled a hamstring while doing the hokey pokey last week.

Want more?

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

6 thoughts on “May vs. Might

  1. Claire Caterer

    "Might" also serves as past tense to "may" even without using a present perfect construction (have + past participle, as in "I might have gone to Paris last week"). For example:

    I think I may winter in Florida.

    I thought I might winter in Florida, but my private jet broke down.

    Great topic to cover!

  2. Peter McCarthy

    I’m with Rich. The difference between "may" and "might" is that "may" implies permission, whereas "might" refers to intention.

    "I may go to the store" says I have permission to go.

    "I might go to the store" says there’s a possibility I’ll go to the store.

    The two uses are quite different, and should remain so.

    Peter Mac

  3. Matt McHugh

    This isn’t a grammar issue. Grammar is strict system of agreement for forms of a word and its related enclitics for attributes such as case, number, gender, tense, and mood as dictated by its role in a sentence. Grammatically, "I may not" and "I might not" are identical (first person singular indicative). The difference lies in things such as usage, style, convention, rhetoric; a host of factors may come into play here, and you might choose one word or the other for any number of reasons.

    However, "may" and "might" are modal verbs that have no variant forms regardless of their syntactic function, so–strictly grammatically speaking—while they may always be used interchangeably without error per se, it might not always make sense to do so.

    From One Grammar Nut to Another,

    — mm

  4. Rich

    Brian: Also, may implies permission, might doesn’t. I’ve never really thought of might as the past tense of may. Interesting. Funny how we use stuff from gut instinct without thinking, if English is the first language.

COMMENT