Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Star Light, Star Bright

Help. I'm having one of those brain fugues that make me think the men in white coats from the Mental Institute for the Criminally Editorial might drive up in front of my door any minute.

I've been reading a lot of blogs, and, usually, the comments. Most of the blogs I read deal with English language issues, copy editing, rare and interesting words and origins, etc. You're right--these blogs don't happen to appear on my blogroll now because I just don't feel like taking the time lately to add them to my template. Anyway. The blog writers are usually highly skilled, but the commenters aren't, necessarily. Lately I've run across a problem that seems to be with my own feeble little mind. Commenters seem to be using "may" and "might" interchangeably. Maybe that's perfectly acceptable practice now, or is just more colloquial than I was taught. Every time I see one of the uses I go bonkers trying to decide if it's correct or not.

Perhaps I'm just a dinosaur, but I could swear that I was taught way back in the day that there is a specific difference in these usages. And I am certain that I have used the distinction in copy editing, but I CAN'T REMEMBER HOW! I thought "may" was present and "might" was past. But I can't find a good example of this, and I've looked it up in a dozen references and teaching textbooks, and no one mentions it at all. Even the highly didactic and butt-slapping Harbrace College Handbook, looking menacingly over its half-moon glasses, doesn't cover it. The books all address may/can but I don't have a problem with that one; it's obvious. This may/might is not an easy issue to wrap a feeble mind around, either. Because to begin with it's a conditional, and its time dimension only confuses matters. And of course because it's conditional it could refer to the future, and each of them seems to apply in that situation. Both words just seem to float perfectly legitimately in the existential linguistic ether.

Do you remember any such thing, or am I just a flaming idiot?

First star I see tonight/I wish I may/ I wish I might . . . have this wish to untangle may and might. (That line didn't scan well at all, but I'm desperate.)

Hell, big guns--I'm going to resort to a dictionary! Yes, even those of us who are [nearly!] flawless pedants know multiple dictionaries are their best friends.

[Brief break]

Well, apparently I'm NOT a senile dumbbell who misremembered. Thank God. I was about to voluntarily commit myself to the MICE--see expansion of acronym in first line of this post.

The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (p. 613) says:

may/may/v.aux. (3rd sing. present may; past might/mit/) 1 (often foll. by well for emphasis) expressing possibility (it may be true; I may have been wrong; you may well lose your way). 2 expressing permission (you may not go; may I come in?). 3 expressing a wish (may he live to regret it). 4 expressing uncertainty or irony in questions (who may you be?; who are you, may I ask?). 5 in purpose clauses and after wish, fear, etc. (take such measures as may avert disaster; hope he may succeed). be that as it may despite that; nevertheless (be that as it may, I still want to go). [OE maeg f. Gmc, rel to MAIN1, MIGHT2]
NOTE: Traditionalists insist that one should distinguish between
may (present tense) and might (past tense) in expressing possibility: I may have some dessert after dinner if I'm still hungry; I might have known that the highway would be closed because of the storm. In casual use, though, may and might are generally interchangeable: They might take a vacation next month; He may have called earlier, but the answering machine was broken.

I guess it's official: I'm a "traditionalist." And so the problem of tense still stands: the example of interchangeability involves the FUTURE. Yeah. So what did I say to begin with? Anyway, apparently I'm not living on the far side of crazy yet.


At 10/24/2007 4:03 PM, Blogger Nance said...

"Traditionalist" may also mean "hopelessly archaic" in this case, I'm afraid. I, at the doddering age of 48, was never even taught that distinction in my linguistics class in college, nor have I ever taught it myself. I think it's nitpicking, dear.

Let it go.

At 11/10/2007 2:32 PM, Blogger dreaminglily said...

It makes me nuts too, and what's worse is I know I'm guilty of it too. lol



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