May Have vs. Might Have

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Speaking of a murderer who was apprehended in 1998, a law enforcement officer was quoted as saying:

When all this happened, if I wasn’t there, he may have gotten away with it.

As the speaker was there in the past and the murderer did not get away, standard usage calls for this construction:

When all this happened, if I hadn’t been there, he might have gotten away with it.

Might is the past tense of may. Ideally, may is the form to use when talking about a current situation, and might is the form to use in referring to an event from the past. In practice, the two forms are used interchangeably, as demonstrated by these headlines from different Web sites:

10 Civilizations That Might Have Beaten Columbus To America
Polynesians may have beaten Columbus to South America.

US-bound passengers may have to switch on mobile phones for security
[Cellphone] owners might have to undergo extra screening before boarding

Researchers May Have Discovered The Consciousness On/Off Switch
Scientists might have just found the brain’s “off switch”

6 Signs That You Might Be Psychic
Signs You May be Psychic

7 Mistakes You Might Make Before Your Job Interview
5 Money Mistakes Even Good Savers May Make

Fans might have to wait weeks before Dodgers games come to their TVs
Apple Fans May Have to Wait Longer for Larger iPhone

Most of the time, the interchange of may and might does not present a problem. The Oxford Dictionaries site declares that if the truth of a situation isn’t known at the time of use, then either is acceptable.

The one context in which might is always the better choice is one in which the event mentioned did not in fact occur:

If JFK had not been assassinated, civil rights legislation might have been delayed.

If the English had defeated the Normans at Hastings, we might have inherited fewer spelling problems.

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7 thoughts on “May Have vs. Might Have”

  1. “When all this happened, if I hadn’t been there, he might have gotten away with it.”

    I’d write:
    When all this happened, if I hadn’t been there, he COULD have gotten away with it.

  2. This one annoys me every time I hear it— about 100 times a year, in my case:

    “Although oxygen is flowing, the plastic bag may not inflate”.

    I mean, … geezus, people. In the recorded versions, they even go so far as to put the emphasis on NOT, which makes it doubly wrong to my ears.

    The best solution is to eliminate all mention of the damned bag, since it doesn’t matter whether it inflates or not. But if one insists, wouldn’t “might not” be correct? I’m pretty sure that “may not” isn’t, since by the time it’s a question the event is already past-tense. What’s more, “may not” suggests an affirmative action, as if something is actually PREVENTING the bag from inflating. Were that true, wouldn’t it be “should not” instead?

    Or how about something truly informative, which I suspect has already been used by Southwest Airlines: “If you can still breathe, then oxygen is flowing. Should you lose consciousness, press the call button above your seat for further assistance. By the way, the plastic bag is there simply to catch your screams. Feel free to ignore it.”

  3. I don’t think these sentences below are clear:
    “If JFK had not been assassinated, civil rights legislation might have been delayed.”
    “If the English had defeated the Normans at Hastings, we might have inherited fewer spelling problems.”

  4. @John: Not to disagree, because I suppose you could have written it your way, but in that case you are missing the point of this post. I also somehow feel that your wording doesn’t quite convey the same thing as Maeve’s (correct) revision, although I can’t put my finger on why. It might just be nuance. It seems that there are 4 possible situations:
    (1) I was there but he got away with it anyway. (2) I wasn’t there so he got away with it. (3) I was there so he didn’t get away with it. (4) I wasn’t there but he didn’t get away with it anyway.
    Each one has other implications that I won’t go into because this isn’t my blog.

    By saying “might have,” I think maybe the sentence implies all 4 situations. By saying “could have,” it seems to be implying that he definitely could have gotten away with whatever it was if you hadn’t been there; it seems to limit the possible situations in a way that “might have” doesn’t. I might not be explaining myself well; maybe Maeve can explain better.

  5. John and Bluebird,
    1. might or could: It seems to me to be a case of connotation. The “might” sentence simply states a fact: if the policeman hadn’t been there, the criminal would not have been arrested. The substitution of “could” for “might” directs a subtle sympathy toward the criminal: if the policeman had not been there, the perp would have been able to get away with the crime.

    2. JFK and the Normans: They’re clear to me.

  6. I don’t see anything unclear about the above statements. “Perhaps would” would substitute. I can’t think of more than one thing the statements could mean.

  7. I also don’t see anything unclear about the 2 statements (JFK, and the Normans), probably because, as Maeve said, the statements mention events that did NOT occur; i.e., civil right legislation did NOT get delayed because in fact JFK WAS assassinated, and we DID inherit plenty of spelling problems because the English did NOT defeat the Normans at Hastings. That is probably why “might” is the better word in the first example also. There were several POSSIBLE outcomes that did NOT in fact occur. If you sub the word “could” in there (as John proposed), you are proposing PROBABILITY instead of just possibility. Is that more clear? Maybe that is the nuance or subtlety I’m trying to explain.

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