Might vs. May Rules and Functions

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Language learners often consider English challenging since it contains many tricky rules. One of the concerns is the differences between might and may. Although these modal verbs share similarities, they aren’t interchangeable. It’s important to understand the difference between them to communicate clearly.

What’s the difference between might and may

Might and may are used for similar purposes but have different meanings.

Certainty, possibilityExpresses a higher degree of certainty or likelihood.He may arrive on time.Expresses a lower degree of certainty or likelihood.He might arrive on time.
Requests, permissionsCommonly used for direct requests or permissions.May I borrow your book?Often used for more polite or tentative requests or suggestions.Might I borrow your book?
Past PossibilityDoes not indicate past possibility or non-occurrence.She may have completed the project.Used to indicate past possibility or that something did not happen.She thought she might have forgotten her keys.

Below, you will learn the details of using might vs may for every case. 

Using ‘May’ in a sentence

As it is mentioned above, ‘may' is used to speak about certainty, possibility, requests, and permissions. Below, you will learn the cases and rules when you can use may.

Represent certainty and possibility

Most often, ‘may’ is used to represent a slight uncertainty or discuss the possibility of something happening in the future. Using ‘may’ in a sentence, you will picture potential outcomes. Here are some examples:

  • The train may arrive late due to inclement weather.
  • We may accept the offer of partnership if the payment is negotiable.

In the first sentence, 'may' indicates the possibility of the train arriving late. In the second sentence, ‘may’ shows the company's likelihood of accepting the offer but does not guarantee either outcome. In both cases, there is room for alternative scenarios since speakers can’t be 100% assured about the future.

Making requests and asking for permissions

In addition to speaking about uncertainty, the word 'may' is also commonly used when making requests or asking for permissions. It serves the purpose of expressing politeness and respect in such situations. Below are a few examples to illustrate this:

  • May I borrow your pen for a moment?
  • May we have a moment of your time to discuss the project?
  • You may leave the classroom once you've completed the assignment.
  • The guests may take photographs during the ceremony.

The use of 'may' in the initial two instances indicates a polite request, showing respect for the authority of the other party and seeking their consent. In the third and fourth examples, 'may' is used to grant permission without being impolite.

Rules for Using 'May':

While 'may' may seem straightforward in its usage, you should follow some rules:

  1. 'May' is used in present or future contexts to express possibility, likelihood, requests, or permissions.
  2. It is more formal and polite than 'can' when seeking permission or making requests.
  3. In formal writing, 'may' is preferred over 'might' for expressing possibility or likelihood.
  4. ‘May' is not used in past-tense constructions. Instead of ‘may’ past tense, 'might' is employed to denote past possibility or uncertainty.

'May' is a word that plays various roles in the English language. Whether expressing uncertainty, seeking permission, or making requests, 'may' is a vital tool for effective communication. By understanding its functions and adhering to the rules, learners can use 'may' confidently, navigating language difficulties with finesse and precision.


Using might in a sentence

Might is another English word for expressing uncertainty, making requests, and granting permissions. Comparing might vs may, the former is also used for delving into past possibilities. Below, you will learn the role of 'might,’ and discover the grammar rules to use this word correctly.

Certainty and possibility

Except for ‘may,’ you may use 'might' to demonstrate uncertainty, discussing potential outcomes and possibilities. Remember that 'might' denotes a level of possibility that is less assured than 'may.' Here are some examples:

  • The team might win the championship if they maintain their current momentum.
  • She might attend the conference, depending on her workload.

When 'might' is used in these cases, it indicates the potential or probability of an event happening while acknowledging that there are other possible outcomes. The speaker presents circumstances that could influence a positive result. However, even if these conditions become true, there is no certainty that the team will secure the championship or that a woman will be present at the conference.

Requests and Permissions

Beyond its role in expressing possibility, 'might' is also used to make requests and grant permissions. In these contexts, 'might' helps to show respect, seek approval, or demonstrate authority.

  • Might I borrow your laptop for a few minutes?
  • Might we have your permission to access the restricted area?
  • You might leave early if you've completed all your tasks.
  • Might the students use calculators during the exam?

Comparing may and might in terms of requests and permissions, 'might' is often used for more polite requests and suggestions, while 'may' can be more direct. That is why ‘might’ is more appropriate for formal settings.

Past Possibility

One distinctive feature of might vs. may is its ability to delve into past possibilities or events that did not occur. In this context, 'might' reflects uncertainty about past actions or outcomes. 

  • He thought he might have left his keys at the office, but they were in his pocket all along.
  • I might have missed the train if I hadn't left early.

In these sentences, 'might' indicates a past possibility or event that did not materialize, highlighting the uncertainty surrounding past actions or occurrences. 

Rules for Using 'Might'

To use 'might' effectively, it's essential to adhere to certain rules:

  1. 'Might' expresses possibility, uncertainty, requests, permissions, and past possibilities.
  2. It is typically more formal and polite than 'may' when requesting or seeking permissions.
  3. In formal writing, 'might' is preferred over 'may' for expressing possibility or likelihood, especially in past-tense constructions.

‘Might' plays various roles in English communication. Understanding how it works and following the grammar rules, learners can confidently use 'might,' communicating clearly and sharing ideas effectively.

Discovering the Difference Between 'Might' vs. 'May'


'May' and 'might' are two modal verbs in English that serve similar purposes but with subtle differences in certainty and politeness. ‘Might’ can also indicate past possibilities, differentiating this word from ‘may.’ Understanding when to use each one is essential for effective communication and precise writing.

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