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May, Might and Can Posted by on Jul 4, 2012 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary

May and might – who knew that two words could create so much confusion when it comes to learning the English language. Yet, these two words do just that.

So what is the difference between may and might? Well, not too much actually.

may = suggests that it is possible that the action will occur

might = that there is an even smaller possibility that the action will happen

Here are some example sentences:

  • I may go swimming today. –> it is quite possible that I will go swimming
  • I might go swimming today. –> it is probably pretty unlikely that I will go swimming
  • I may go bungee jumping when I am on holiday. = it is quite possible that I will go bungee jumping
  • I might go bungee jumping when I am on holiday. = it is probably pretty unlikely that I will go bungee jumping

The difference between the two words is very subtle and typically there isn’t too much attention put on when you use one instead of the other. However, that changes if we are using the past tense. Might is the past tense of may, so you should use might when using the past tense (although not everyone does!).

  • She might have forgotten to buy bread.
  • He might have left a message with reception while we were out.
  • I might have forgotten to close the refrigerator door before we left!

Can and May

Another version of the may/might confusion is may and can. These two words tend to be the bane of a child’s life because almost everyone has been corrected by a teacher or a parent when they used the wrong one.

may = indicates permission –-> May I have a slice of apple pie? (is it allowed for me to eat one)

can = indicates ability –->I can eat six apple pies in a row without throwing up. (I have the physical ability to eat six pies in a row)

If you can remember this dialogue, then you are probably going to remember when to use can and when to use may:

Question from Teenager: Can I paint my room black and white?

Answer from Parent: I’m sure you can, but you may not.

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