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How to use "might"


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After reading the recent article on the modal verb may, you may (!) be wondering how and when to use the associated word might.

1. Expressing a possibility

May and might both express the idea of possibility:

We may call a meeting next week; We might call a meeting next week.

The two forms are basically interchangeable, although the less likely the possibility, the more appropriate it is to use might:

We might call a meeting next week, although the chairman won't be available.

Saying we might go to the trade fair means that the likelihood of going is somewhat less than if you say we may go to the trade fair – although the difference is very subtle.

Similarly, might can be used to express doubt when a possibility is extremely remote:

If you can submit enough evidence, you might be able to win the case.

In this example, the person speaking does not think that the party will be able to produce enough evidence and, consequently, does not think there is much likelihood of it winning the case.

Although may and might can both refer to present and future possibilities, as shown in the above examples, only might can be used with reference to the past:

We thought we might win the case.

She said they might launch the new range next year.

May have and might have have different meanings.

May have means that you don't yet know whether something has happened – the possibility is still open:

The results have not been published yet, but there are fears that the company may have performed badly.

 

Might have means that there was a possibility of something but that it no longer exists:

You were lucky the other party didn't claim infringement of its trademark – you might have lost the case.

 

However, there is an increasing tendency to use may have instead of might have:

You were lucky the other party didn't claim infringement of its trademark – you may have lost the case.

In most cases the meaning will be perfectly clear from the context, but occasionally ambiguity may arise, and the may have/might have distinction is a useful one to keep.

2. Expressing permission

Again, both may and might can be used to express permission. Might has a higher degree of politeness than may. For example, might I express my opinion? conveys less insistence than may I express my opinion?

However, in practice might is very rarely used in this way, as may is already considered very polite compared to can (see earlier article).

Lastly, let's look at the following two sentences:

He might ask if he can work at your desk.

He might ask before he works at my desk!

The first sentence means that there is a possibility he will ask if he can work at your desk. The second implies that he has worked at your desk, but without asking permission, and you are annoyed about this.

Another example of this structure:

You might have told me that he lost his job!

Here, the implication is that the person should have told you this, and you are annoyed because you were placed in a situation where you would have acted differently if you had known this.


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