Question from Teddy in the USA:
What is the difference between “may” or “might”? e.g.,
- I might have made a mistake or
- I may have made a mistake.
Hi Teddy and thanks for the question!
Using ‘may’ or ‘might’ can be a little confusing for an English learner – especially if you look too hard to find any difference in usage between the two!
‘May’ and ‘might’ are almost always interchangeable – that is, you can convey exactly the same meaning using either one. Both express a possibility of some action taking place. For example:
- It may rain this afternoon.
- It might rain this afternoon.
- He may miss the train if he doesn’t hurry.
- He might miss the train if he doesn’t hurry.
Most grammar will tell you that ‘might’ suggests a somewhat lower probability or possibility than ‘may‘ but this is a really fine distinction and you won’t be making any grammatical errors nor confusing your meaning if you use either one.
Now, when you are using ‘might‘ as the past tense of the auxiliary ‘may‘ then you stick with ‘might’ in the sentence:
- He might have caught his train if he had left work on time.
Don’t forget that ‘may‘ can also be used in interrogative sentences when you are asking permission to do something. It is a common ‘polite’ form. For example:
- May I use your telephone?
- May I smoke?
When used for asking permission we use ‘may‘ and not ‘might’. However, just to confuse it a little, it is more and more common to use ‘can‘ when asking permission although can doesn’t, in my opinion, yet carry the same sense of polite request that using ‘may’ does :
- Can I use your telephone, please?
- Can I smoke?