Taalblog

May or might?

Wired tweeted this today:

Screenshot from 2020-06-18 12-42-11

I would have written it like “… with stuff you may already have at home”. “Might” is used in a sentence to express what is “hypothetical, counterfactual or remotely possible”, as I found on this site. If you say “it’s not that hard”, then I don’t assume that it is remotely possible or even hypothetical that I already have the stuff at home. Rather, I would assume that it is possible or factual that I have the stuff at home. Which means, “I may have the stuff at home”. I am surprised that an editor of Wired should make such a mistake.

Last week I read the documentation of the Dutch Corona app on github. It says

Screenshot from 2020-06-18 12-49-48

If you say that validation and tests may lead to changes of the documentation, you refer to a highly probable possibility that you will change the documentation because it is very rare that validation and tests do not lead to changes in the application and in the documentation. When you say “we might add or remove features” you say “it’s almost certain we won’t”. When you say “we may add or remove features” you mean to say “there is an actual possibility we will”.

Today, people use “might” a lot more than “may” when expressing an intent. This means that where we used to have two different ways of expressing an intent, we now only have one. We lost the option of indicating whether our intention (the thing we may/might do) is a real possibility or just a hypothetical one. The reader or the listener will have to infer this from the rest of our sentence or even from following sentences. This makes listening and reading a tad more difficult. Also, removing options from our language makes it less expressive and poorer. Neanderthals had a much less expressive language than we have, so in a way, removing an option or a word from our language brings us one step closer to being Neanderthals.

 

References

Writingexplained.org