Monday, July 13, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Modals plus May vs. Might

On a busy Friday night, when this bookworm wants to curl up with a good read even though all her friends are dancing the night away, she finds noncommittal modals a useful resource. Modals are auxiliary verbs that modify action verbs to suggest possibility or necessity. {I would attend your "sequined forest animals" party but I just started reading the Twilight series.} {Yes, the "sexy pioneers" disco sounds like a rager but I must find out if Edward and Bella really are soulmates}.

The words may and might are both modals. While they generally mean the same thing, they are not entirely interchangeable. Amy Einsohn (The Copyeditor's Handbook) offers the following guidelines: "Might is the past tense of may. {I might have been late for work, I was so absorbed in my book.} Both might and may are used to describe unlikely future events, with might denoting less certainty. {It is one in the afternoon, so after he reads the next chapter of New Moon, he may get out of bed and he might leave the house.} Might is used to denote...a past event...that did not take place. {I might have written Twilight, if I'd thought of it.} May is used to denote a speculation about a past event." {She may have gone out last Friday; there was a vampire theme-soiree that sounded promising.}

Strunk and White remind writers that, "if...every sentence admits a doubt, [it] will lack authority" and to "save auxiliaries...for situations involving real uncertainty." For more examples and explanation of gray areas regarding usage see Grammar Girl's column on the subject.

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