The Modal Verbs May and Might

“May” vs. “Might”: What's the Difference?

The modal verb may has two tense forms: may (the Present Simple) — might (the Past Simple).

May can express the following meanings:

  • Permission or asking for permission (formal).
    • May I interrupt you?
    • You may be seated
  • The form might is used in indirect speech according to the rules of the sequence of tenses
    • He told me that I might go home
  • Prohibition (formal)
    • You may not smoke in here
  • Possibility due to circumstances like can (only in affirmative sentences with an indefinite infinitive)
    • You may/can order a ticket by telephone
  • Uncertainty.  Might is less categoric
    • He may be tired
    • He might come later
  • May or might are used with all forms of the infinitive. The Perfect Infinitive is used to refer the action to the past
    • He may/might have sold the house
    • They might not be working in the library now

NOTE: Supposition or uncertainty in questions is rendered by: Is he likely to…?, Is it likely that he …?, Do you think…

    • Is Mary likely to arrive tonight?
  • Reproach, hurt feelings (only might is used)
    • You might at least say you’re sorry
    • You might have warned me!
  • Wish
    • May you be happy!

Here are a few important rules for modal verbs:

  • Modal verbs do not take any endings like -s, -ed or -ing
  • Modal verbs are followed by the base form of another verb (may do, might be)
  • Modal verbs make questions by inverting the subject and the modal verb (may I)
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