Monday, March 25, 2013

If I May, If I Might

Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his...
Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his famous 'V' sign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I ain't always (ever?) real confident on grammar and suchlike.

I know what sounds right to me, reading, and what sounds wrong, but sometimes what sounds wrong to me is grammatically acceptable, and vice versa.

Sometimes we can get all twisted up about grammar rules, such as making sure not to end a sentence with a preposition.  There's a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Silly, isn't it?

I spent my teen years in a region (south-central Pennsylvania) where you outen the lights when you leave the room, where if you drink the last of the milk, it's only courtesy to let someone know "the milk is all," and when, after asking for a ride to the mall, get back a cheery, "I'll be glad to run you over."

It's all the little colloquialisms and regional turns of phrase that make reading and writing so much fun.

But recently while reading a book I very much enjoyed, I kept getting thrown out of the story by the liberal use of the word "may." It didn't sound right. It didn't feel right.

It bugged me so much I had to stop and go look up the proper grammatical usage. Was the author and her (professional) editor wrong, or was it me?

Take this fragment: "he was afraid he may not want to take her collar off when two weeks was up." Or this one: "She may have not had a lover in a while."

via Wikimedia Commons
Instead of wondering whether this dominant and submissive were headed for a long term romance, I was obsessing about the grammar?

Sadly, yes.

English Grammar Lessons. com says:

We use 'might' to suggest a small possibility of something. Often we read that 'might' suggests a smaller possibility that 'may', there is in fact little difference and 'might is more usual than 'may' in spoken English.
  • It might rain this afternoon.
  • She might be at home by now but it's not sure at all.
  • I might not have time to go to the shops for you.
  • I might not go.
For the past, we use 'might have'.
  • He might have tried to call you while you were out.
  • I might have left it in the taxi.
Grammar Girl Confirms:
World famous whitewater rafting in the Valley.
World famous whitewater rafting in the Valley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I remember the difference by thinking that I should use might when something is a mighty stretch. Imagine something you'd almost never do, and then imagine someone inviting you to do it. For me, it's white-water rafting. The idea terrifies me. So if someone (such as my former employer) asked me to go on a corporate bonding white-water rafting trip, it's unlikely I would go, but I could be convinced if I thought my job depended on it. But it would be a mighty stretch. So I'd say something like, "Yeah, I might go; and pigs might fly, too."

So imagine whatever it is you'd be reluctant to do but wouldn't completely rule out, and then imagine yourself saying in a nice, sarcastic voice, "Yeah, I might." And that should help you remember to use might when the outcome is uncertain or unlikely and to use may when something is more likely to happen, such as attending a nice, safe company lunch where helmets and life vests aren't required.

You might clean your room, but you may call your friend later. You might climb Mt. Everest someday, but you may go hiking in the foothills next weekend. 
She goes on to illustrate (I adore Grammar Girl, just sayin')
First, might is the past tense of may. So you have to use might when you are referring to the past. For example, even if it's likely that Squiggly went to a party last night, Aardvark shouldn't say, “Squiggly may have gone to the party’; he should say, “Squiggly might have gone to the party.”
The second exception is a gray area. When you're talking about something not happening, it can be better to use might because people could think you're talking about permission if you use may. This is clearer with an example. If you aren't sure whether you'll go to the party, and you say, "We may not go to the party," it can be misinterpreted to mean you don't have permission to go to the party, particularly in writing, where voice inflections don't help guide the meaning. But if you say, "We might not go to the party," then your meaning is clear. It's the safer bet.

So remember to use may when the outcome is likely and might when the outcome is less likely or uncertain. But also remember that you use might for everything in the past tense. Also, it's OK to use might when you're writing about negative outcomes, even if they're likely outcomes, if using may would make people think you were talking about having permission.

So the phrase: "She may have not had a lover in a while," is wrong, because it refers to the past, and the wording is clunky, besides. Smoother and more grammatically correct would be: "She might not have had a lover in a while," or even, "She might not've had a lover in a while..."

In the sentence fragment:  "he was afraid he may not want to take her collar off when two weeks was up..." grammatically, it's not wrong; it falls in that gray area. To me, as worded, it's confusing. Would it work with "might"? "he was afraid he might not want to take her collar off when two weeks was up"? I find that clearer.

Another option, since so much is happening in that sentence, might be rephrasing it altogether, "he was afraid that when the two weeks was up, he'd want to keep her collar on."

I would never want to edit out all the flavor and local turns of phrases

Not from this author's work, nor from any other. I enjoy it. The gods and goddesses of grammar know how often I have to change something I've written because the meaning is either unclear or grammatically incorrect, so I ain't throwing stones.

But to my way of thinking, it's best to leave the colloquialisms to dialogue and italicized inner thoughts, rather than narrative, even if the narrative is in a character's point of view. Anything that throws a reader out of the story and racing for a grammar refresher is not a good thing.

And on that note, I'm running myself over to the store, as my martini mix is all.

How comfortable are you with the proper use of "may" and "might"?
What kind of local phrases are used where you come from?
Have you been sidetracked by a clunky sentence in an otherwise good book?

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