Both “may” and “might” have the same overall meaning – they are both ways of expressing possibility. They are also modals (along with could, should, would), which are helping verbs that tell you more about the mood or attitude of the action verb.
I was brought up to ask for things using the word “may.” “May I have another glass of milk, please?” “May I watch cartoons on Saturday morning, please?” I think this is what trips us up when looking at “may” and trying to decide if you should use “may” vs. “might.” The difference between these two words is subtle, but important.
General use of “might” – use might when the outcome is uncertain or unlikely. Things I might do? I might win the lottery. I might hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Unlikely, but it could happen.
General use of “may” – use may when the outcome is more likely to happen. Things I may do? I may go to outdoor yoga tomorrow, provided it finally quits raining. I may get some yard work done.
Now, as always, there are exceptions to this. The first one comes with “might” as the past tense of “may.” So, when referencing the past, mood doesn’t matter and you should use “might.”
Example: “She might have gone to see her friend yesterday.”
The second one falls in a nice murky area where one’s intent needs to be made clear. Using “may” can be interpreted as needing permission to do something. If I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to go to outdoor yoga in the morning, I should just say “might,” which would remove any insinuation that I needed someone’s permission to go to outdoor yoga in the morning.
Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at email@example.com.
Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.