Using the Auxiliary Verbs Might and May Correctly in Academic Writing

Using the Auxiliary Verbs Might and May Correctly in Academic Writing
English is fraught with words that seem straightforward to most native speakers, but tend to present significant difficulties for authors whose native tongue is not English. Some of these words even present challenges for native English speakers who are familiar with informal writing, but find that they also need to produce prose that is more formal and semantically precise. The verbs ‘might’ and ‘may’ are two such words, and research documents, whether they are prepared for publication, presentation or course credit, constitute the kind of writing in which those and many other tricky English words must always be used correctly. The dilemma of ‘might versus may’ therefore arises with considerable frequency for the academics and scientists who write to report the processes, results and implications of advanced research. The differences between these two words can be extremely subtle and there is often overlap in their usage patterns, but there are also some important principles to keep in mind when working to resolve ‘might versus may’ problems and use both words successfully.

First and foremost, it is vital to remember that the words ‘might’ and ‘may’ are auxiliary or helping verbs and they therefore function differently than main verbs do. When ‘might’ or ‘may’ is used to write about the present or a current situation, it should be followed by the root of the infinitive form of the main verb. ‘She may go’ (using ‘go’ from ‘to go’) and ‘He might be there’ (using ‘be’ from ‘to be’) are therefore correct, whereas ‘She may goes’ and ‘He might is there’ (using the third-person singular forms of the verbs) are incorrect. When referring to past events, ‘have’ and the past participle of the main verb should follow ‘might’ or ‘may,’ so ‘She may have gone already’ and ‘He might have been there before her’ are correct, but ‘She may went already’ and ‘He might was there before her’ are obviously wrong.
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‘Might’ is the past tense of ‘may,’ a fact that can sometimes help authors answer the ‘might versus may’ question. If the present tense is used for other verbs in a clause or sentence, then ‘may’ will be a sound choice, as in ‘I think she may go to the conference this year,’ where ‘think’ is in the simple present tense. On the contrary, if the past tense is used for other verbs in a clause or sentence, ‘might’ will be the right choice: ‘I thought she might go to the conference this year,’ where ‘thought’ is in the simple past tense. In some cases, no introductory verb such as ‘think’ and ‘thought’ in those sentences is used to indicate the tense required, but the sense of past or present is enough to make the right choice. ‘That job may be mine,’ for instance, expresses that the job is still available and will possibly become the speaker’s job, whereas ‘That job might have been mine’ expresses the speaker’s annoyance or frustration because the job has been given to someone else.

Unfortunately, temporal realities and verb tenses alone cannot always suggest whether ‘might’ or ‘may’ will be appropriate. The level of possibility, probability or certainty implied by a sentence can also play a part in answering the ‘might versus may’ question. For example, ‘I think she may go to the conference this year’ could be altered to ‘I think she might go to the conference this year’ without introducing any kind of error. However, the nuances of the sentence have changed, with ‘might’ expressing more of a hypothetical situation and implying less probability of actual attendance that ‘may’ did in the same sentence. In ‘I thought she might go to the conference this year’ this hypothetical quality is immediately apparent: the ‘I’ speaker ‘thought’ she would go, but no longer does, presumably because reality has proven that thought incorrect – that is, she has not attended the conference. Were ‘may’ used instead of ‘might’ in that sentence, as in ‘I thought she may go to the conference,’ the result would be awkward, unless the point is to record exactly what the speaker had earlier thought: ‘Last week I thought, “She may go to the conference,” but I was wrong.’
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In keeping with ‘might’ as both the past tense of ‘may’ and an effective means of expressing greater uncertainty, conditional situations in the past that have been proven untrue or counterfactual are often expressed using ‘might’ rather than ‘may.’ ‘If she had arrived at the conference on time, she might have given her paper’ indicates that she did not arrive on time and was not able to give her paper. ‘Might’ is an excellent choice for this kind of speculation about the past, but do be aware that the same thought can be expressed using ‘may,’ as in ‘If she had arrived at the conference on time, she may have given her paper,’ and most readers will have no trouble with the grammar or meaning of that sentence. Adherence to the principle of using ‘may’ for more probable situations and ‘might’ for less probable ones can therefore be helpful, but it is essential to recognise that in practice ‘may’ and ‘might’ are often interchangeable, even in formal academic or scientific prose, without any difference in certainty or probability intended by the writer or speaker.

The ‘might versus may’ problem also arises when writing about giving, refusing or requesting permission. In informal contexts, the word ‘can’ is often used in these situations, as in ‘You can work at the library,’ ‘You cannot work at the library’ or ‘Can I work at the library?’ However, ‘can’ implies the ability rather than the permission to work at the library, so ‘may’ is a better and more formal choice. ‘You may work at the library,’ ‘You may not work at the library’ and ‘May I work at the library?’ are considered more polite as well as more correct options when giving, refusing and requesting permission. ‘Might I work at the library?’ is a viable if somewhat dated possibility for requesting permission, but ‘You might work at the library’ does not convey the sense of permission that ‘You may work at the library’ does; instead, it simply notes that working at the library is a possibility.

The use of ‘may’ in sentences about giving, refusing and requesting permission means that ‘might’ is often the better choice regardless of tense or level of probability when permission is not intended. ‘You may work at the library’ could simply mean that working at the library is a possibility for you, but it also implies that the speaker is giving you permission to work at the library. ‘You might work at the library’ removes that ambiguity by removing the hint of permission, and the same is the case in a sentence such as ‘You might assume that incorrectly,’ which would seem to give permission for mistaken thoughts were it worded ‘You may assume that incorrectly.’ For those who adhere strictly to the notion that ‘might’ always implies a higher level of improbability, these ‘might’ constructions could hint at the unlikelihood of working at the library or of thinking those incorrect thoughts, but, as I mentioned above, ‘might’ and ‘may’ tend to be used interchangeably and without confusion when it comes to most levels of possibility and probability.

An exception is the use of ‘might’ when the intention is to express something that is highly improbable if not impossible. A person suffering from a fear of heights who says ‘Sure, I might go skydiving with you’ is very likely using that ‘might’ in this way to express how extremely unlikely it is that he or she will actually go skydiving. Sometimes statements of this kind are highlighted by additional information to make the tone and meaning clear: ‘Sure, I might go skydiving with you, and elephants might sprout wings and fly.’ The answer, then, is obviously ‘no.’ ‘Sure, I may go skydiving with you’ is quite different in implying that the activity will at least be considered, even if not entirely seriously, so when referring to something that probably will not happen or has not happened, ‘might’ is usually the better choice.

In academic and scientific writing ‘may’ is often used to describe what usually or typical happens in a given situation. ‘Investigators may encounter problems with replicating this trial,’ ‘Children may become bored during the test’ and ‘Patients may experience adverse side effects’ are examples of this usage. Here the probability is very high indeed – so high that it may need to be stated for safety or other reasons – so ‘may’ is a better choice than ‘might,’ but the problems, boredom and adverse effects are not inevitable consequences, so ‘may’ is also a better choice than the auxiliary verb ‘will,’ which would express absolute certainty.

In addition, ‘may’ is used to express wishes or to wish someone well. ‘May all their hard work pay off,’ ‘May you have many healthy children’ and ‘May all our writing endeavours bring success’ are sound examples. Such wishes are unlikely to be found in most academic and scientific documents, but something of the kind may appear in acknowledgements. Finally, ‘may’ and ‘might’ can be used with ‘as well’ to indicate that something is or was done because something else more appropriate, interesting or pressing cannot or could not be done. For example, ‘I forgot my notes for the exam, so I may as well start working on the paper’ uses ‘may as well’ correctly, and ‘The lights in the laboratory had to be replaced, so we decided that we might as well conduct the outdoor trials while we were waiting’ uses ‘might as well’ effectively.

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