Monday, November 23, 2009

Getting it right with "may" and "might" (Oliver Kamm)

Oliver Kamm, in his Pedant column for the London Times, zeroes in on a distressingly common linguistic barbarism that I find as annoying as he does. Even otherwise intelligent and well-educated people often insist on using "may" where they really mean "might" ... and the resulting formulations don't really make sense.

Since Kamm uses some World War II examples in his discussion, let me use two of my own to highlight the essential distinction.

Right: If Hitler had focused on defeating the British in North Africa, instead of gambling everything on his catastrophic invasion of the Soviet Union, he might have won the war.

Wrong: If Hitler had focused on defeating the British in North Africa, instead of gambling everything on his catastrophic invasion of the Soviet Union, he may have won the war.

For Kamm's useful explanation of why the first is right and the second is wrong, see below. But first let me commend this very nice illustrative example he cites:
I have for years kept an excellent example of the correct use of may and might within a single sentence. It comes from a review in The Observer of the second volume of Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler. The reviewer, Peter Conrad, writes (emphasis added): “[Hitler] made up military strategy as he went along and may have lost the war because of muddled tactics: if the Germans had reacted more swiftly on the Normandy beaches, Kershaw reckons, they might have beaten back the Allied invasion."
Perhaps he might have, but now we know for sure that he didn't. Again, for an explanation of why this difference matters grammatically and stylistically, see below.

Yours for getting it right,
Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE:  For some follow-ups, see A few more prevalent linguistic errors and Increasingly fashionable linguistic errors (continued).

==============================
London Times (Online)
October 19, 2009
The Pedant: a way through the mays
You might not have thought much about it, but the difference between may and might is sometimes a very important one

By Oliver Kamm

Sally Baker, the feedback editor of The Times, writes a weekly column responding to readers’ letters. She plaintively referred last week to the “greatest mystery of them all”. This is that The Times continually fails to distinguish properly between “may” and “might”.

She is right. There is no excuse for using the words interchangeably. Judging by Sally’s correspondence, Times readers know this, whereas Times writers don’t. So this column is a plea to my colleagues to get it right.

Our sports pages last week carried this fascinating speculation in an article about tennis: “As far-fetched as it might seem, [Novak] Djokovic and Andy Murray may have become team-mates. Indeed, only Djokovic’s devotion to Serbia ... prevented what would have been the liaison to end all tennis liaisons.”

Even if you know nothing about tennis (which is, ahem, close to my own position), you can work out from the second sentence that the first cannot be right. The word “might” is used correctly in the first sentence. But then to say that Djokovic and Murray “may have become” team-mates indicates that it is an open question whether they did or not. But it isn’t. We know that Murray and Djokovic didn’t become team-mates, because Djokovic chose to represent Serbia rather than Britain. There was such a possibility in the past, but it doesn’t exist now. The right way to say this is that Djokovic and Murray might (not may) have become team-mates; but they didn’t.

I have for years kept an excellent example of the correct use of may and might within a single sentence. It comes from a review in The Observer of the second volume of Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler. The reviewer, Peter Conrad, writes (emphasis added): “[Hitler] made up military strategy as he went along and may have lost the war because of muddled tactics: if the Germans had reacted more swiftly on the Normandy beaches, Kershaw reckons, they might have beaten back the Allied invasion.”

It is possible that the Nazis’ defeat in the Second World War was due to muddled tactics (rather than, say, superior Allied force). Those tactics may have lost them the war: we don’t know. But the Nazis certainly did not beat back the Allied invasion on the Normandy beaches. That possibility was once open (according to Kershaw’s book), but it never happened. So the Nazis might have repelled the Allies. Fortunately, they didn’t. And it should be clear, from the difference between how the world is and how it might have been, that the difference of meaning between may and might matters.

thepedant@thetimes.co.uk

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