‘Might’ vs. ‘may’: When to use each

These helper verbs convey the likelihood of an action, but to different degrees. Verb tense matters, too.

“I might go to the movies this weekend.”

“I may go to the movies this weekend.”

Is there a difference between these two sentences?

Both may and might are often used interchangeably; both are ways of expressing possibility. They are also modals (along with could, should, would), which are helping verbs that tell you more about the mood or attitude of the action verb.

I was brought up to ask for things using the word may (as opposed to can). “May I have another glass of milk, please?” ” May I watch cartoons on Saturday morning, please?”

I think this is what trips us up when looking at may and trying to decide whether you should use may or might. The difference between these two words is subtle but important.

General use of might: Use might when the outcome is uncertain or unlikely. Things I might do? I might win the lottery. I might hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Unlikely, but it could happen.

General use of may: Use may when the outcome is more likely. Things I may do? I may go to outdoor yoga tomorrow, provided it finally quits raining. I may get some yard work done.

As always, there are exceptions. The first one comes with might as the past tense of may. When referencing the past, mood doesn’t matter, so you should use “might.”

Example: “She might have gone to see her friend yesterday.”

The second one falls in a nice murky area where one’s intent needs to be made clear. Using may can be interpreted as needing permission to do something.

If I’m not sure whether I’m going to go to outdoor yoga in the morning, I should just say might, which would remove any insinuation that I needed someone’s permission to go to outdoor yoga in the morning.

Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire. Contact her at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com. A version of this article first appeared on PR Newswire’s blog.

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