May vs Might: What’s the Difference?

The main distinction in may vs might is that “may” is used when something is more likely and “might” is used when it is less certain.

May and might are nearly synonymous, but there are subtle differences in these words that indicate that something is possible.

Sometimes the rules in English are subtle. The road to learning when to use may vs. might has a few potholes and detours. Once you've figured out the basic rules and the inevitable exceptions, however, you can be sure you'll always reach for the right one.

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Are Might and May Interchangeable? 

Learning when to use may vs might

First things first: can either of these words be used in place of the other? The answer is that yes, you can swap one for the other without an error most of the time. However, there are a few cases where the definition of each word is slightly but definitely different.

A few examples where each can be used in the place of the other without profoundly changing the meaning of the sentence include:

  • “May I use the phone?” and “Might I use the phone?”
  • “She may be right.” and “She might be right.”
  • “The package may come today.” and “The package might come today.”

However, as noted, there are several cases where one or the other is the correct word. These include:

  • Hypothetical statements. “If we'd gotten there earlier, we might have caught her before she left.”
  • Complaints. “You might have asked me before you bought another umbrella.”
  • When “may not” is being used in the sense of permission. “You may not come in unless you remove your shoes.”
  • When something is not happening. It generally makes more sense to say “we might not go to the movie” instead of “we may not go.” The latter can be misinterpreted as a lack of permission instead of a lack of desire to see the latest superhero epic.

What's the Big Difference Between May and Might?

The biggest difference in common use is that “may” has a greater degree of certainty than “might.” Use “may” when the outcome is likely, and “might” when it is less so.

For instance, you would say “it may rain before then,” if the forecast shows a 70% chance of showers. You would use “I might take you up on that” if the chances of you accepting the invitation are on the slim side.

Might Is Also the Past Tense of May

To make it all a little more confusing, might is the past tense of may. So, it is proper to say, “she might have put the game back in the closet last night” but not “she may have put the game in the closet last night.”

Getting Familiar with Modals

Here is where we get into the technical grammar terminology regarding “might” and “may.” Both words are a part of speech known as “modals.” Modals are helping verbs that allow you to get some information about the attitude or mood of the action verb. Other modals include should and would. 

I should go, I would go, I might go, and I may go all have shades of meaning that distinguish them from one another. 

May vs. Might Examples

May vs might
“May” is used when asking for permission

Each of these words has a few different meanings and uses.

“May” is used when asking for permission. However, as this word is rather formal, it is not used very often in modern spoken English.

Examples include:

  • May I borrow a quarter for the phone?
  • May I go to my friend's house?
  • May I have time to consider it?

“May is also used to suggest that something is possible.

Examples include:

  • I may not have time to stop at the pharmacy.
  • George may meet us there.
  • It may rain tomorrow.

“Might” suggests a possibility, but a less certain one than “may.” 

Examples include:

  • She might be home by now, but I doubt it.
  • He might not have noticed.
  • It might work out.
  • When we use “might” in the past tense, it is used with the word “have.”

Examples include:

  • They might have dropped it.
  • The letter might have been lost in the mail.
  • The vase might have fallen off the counter.

The Final Word on May vs Might

May and might are largely interchangeable. Both indicate something that is possible. However, may usually refers to a more certain outcome than might does.

Additionally, may is used for permission. Might is the past tense of may. These are mostly subtle distinctions, but remembering them will make your writing better. 

FAQ About May vs Might

How can I tell whether I should use may or might?

Might is used for less likely outcomes than may. One way to remember the difference is the phrase “a mighty stretch.”

Should I use might have or may have?

In most cases, might have is correct, as it is the past tense of may.

Are may and might interchangeable?

In most cases, yes. The good news about these words is that you may convey a slightly different meaning, but your sentence on the whole will be grammatically correct.

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Author

  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.

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