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may, might, can, could

English translation: May vs. might

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12:17 Dec 25, 2002
English to English translations [Non-PRO]
/ Language Usage
English term or phrase: may, might, can, could
I have already bothered you scholars for suggesting me the usage of will, shall, would. I am deeply moved by the overwhelming response because as many as 8 linguists chose to reply such an elementary question like that.

Now, it is the turn of may, might, can and could. I sincerely hope that you won't mind discussing such trivial matter. I shall be grateful if you could provide to me each and every shade of usage of the abovementioned four words. For example, if could can be used as past tense of can, it can also be used to make a polite request.

Hope that you would have got my point. Sorry to disturb you, as perhaps you will be quite busy in celebrations of Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all of you Great Linguists and good wishes also for the ensuing New Year.

Thanks in anticipation.
R. Chopra
English translation:May vs. might
Explanation:
I’ll do an essay on may/might- and may I say, it’s a far from trivial question! I’m writing as a native British speaker, and not as a teacher of English, so my explanations are based on feeling rather than explicit rules (reality rather than theory?).

Can vs. may

I think here there is a difference in US/UK usage. I would say:

Can I come and see you next week when I’m in London?

The “May I” version I would regard as very formal and unnatural. However, I suspect that the US usage is a bit different, and the “Can I” version is regarded as somewhat uneducated. However, the difference may be due to “armchair grammarians” who talk about what they think ought to be the language rather than what is (you know, the ones who try to tell you “It is I” is correct and who would not countenance “Me and George went out for a drink last night.”).

May vs. might

“I may visit them if I have time,” is correct, but I’d be unhappy about saying “I might visit them if I have time” because the sequence of tenses sounds wrong, and “I might visit them if I had time” sounds a bit confused (I’m not sure if it’s past or future). I could also say “I may/might visit them next week” and in this case they feel equivalent to me in both register and meaning.

In the past (unfulfilled condition) this becomes: “I might have visited them if I had had time.” There is a tendency here to replace “might” by “may” and to say “I may have visited them if I had time” but I’d never use this myself and I’d regard it as possibly uneducated or possibly language in transition.

I could say “I may have visited them once when I was young, but I can’t remember,” and this is a different meaning of “may” expressing uncertainty of occurrence.

Selected response from:

David Knowles
Local time: 14:13
Grading comment
Thanks
4 KudoZ points were awarded for this answer

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Summary of answers provided
4 +9cf. below
Michael Tovbin
5 +4However, in the negative, could is often used as the past tense of can.Refugio
5 +4careful how you use can :)
NancyLynn
5 +3May vs. might
David Knowles
4can/could/able/allowed
Kim Metzger


Discussion entries: 1





  

Answers


7 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +9
cf. below


Explanation:
may:

1. Permission
You may do this.
2. Supposition
I may (possibly, probably) go to Bath this season

might:

Milder, less sure, shade of "may"

can:
1. Physical or mental ability
I can speak English (I am able to)
2. Disbelief (in the negative)
I can't possibly be this late!
3. Polite request (less usual usage)
Can you hand me the salt, please?

could:

1. Polite request (more usual)
Could you hand me the salt, please?

milder, less certain shade of "can".

Michael Tovbin
United States
Local time: 08:13
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish, Native in RussianRussian
PRO pts in pair: 108

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  xxxEDLING
3 mins

agree  Marie Scarano
4 mins

agree  Rana*
1 hr

agree  NancyLynn
1 hr

agree  Rusinterp
9 hrs

agree  Giusi Pasi
13 hrs

agree  Piotr Kurek
18 hrs

agree  xxxKanta Rawat
23 hrs

agree  Anette Herbert
3 days21 hrs
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2 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 5/5 peer agreement (net): +4
careful how you use can :)


Explanation:
Often if you ask "Can I" do such-and-such, what you really mean is May I...? and your answer might be: I don't know, can you? (Can is the ability to perfom something).

Might brings in the power to do something, as evidenced in the noun: Might makes right. (the saying is not necessarily true! that is to say, it could be wrong.)

These are merely a few more examples to illuminate you; they may or may not be helpful.

I could go on, but others will offer some answers, too.

Later on, I just might add another comment.

May you all have a very Merry Christmas!

NancyLynn
Canada
Local time: 09:13
Native speaker of: English
PRO pts in pair: 473

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Kim Metzger: May I vs. can I was drummed into me too. Looks like the Brits are getting slack.
5 hrs
  -> thanks and happy holidays!

agree  Rusinterp
7 hrs
  -> thanks and happy holidays!

agree  Noel Castelino: As one of my teachers used to say: "Of course you can, but you may not..."
1 day16 hrs
  -> yes, I was thinking of a teacher too

agree  xxxsimantov: Not sure why the Brits are the ones supposedly getting slack. They are no slacker than the many Americans I know.
2 days9 hrs
  -> thanks for the overwhelming support guys!
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2 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5
can/could/able/allowed


Explanation:
From Michael Swan, Practical English Usage: 'Be able' is used in cases (e.g. future, present perfect) where can/could is not grammatically possible. 'One day scientists will be able to find a cure for cancer.' 'What have you been able to find out?'
Can and could have no infinitives or participles (not to can, canning, I have could). When necessary, we use other words, for example forms of 'be able' or 'be allowed.' - 'She's always been allowed to do what she liked.'

--------------------------------------------------
Note added at 2002-12-25 15:29:50 (GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

Past tense: \"We use \'could\' for general ability to say that somebody could do something at any time, whenever she wanted. She could read when she was four. (or was able to)
We do not normally use \'could\' to say someone managed to do something on one occasion. Instead, we use was/were able, managed or succeeded (in ... ing).
How many eggs were you able to get? Not: could you get
I managed to find a really nice dress in the sale. Not: I could find
After six hours\' climbing, we succeeded in getting to the top of the mountain. Not: we could get to the top

Kim Metzger
Mexico
Local time: 08:13
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in pair: 2249
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5 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 5/5 peer agreement (net): +4
However, in the negative, could is often used as the past tense of can.


Explanation:
I'm sorry I couldn't go to your party yesterday.
And especially in the narrative past:
The children could not believe their eyes.

Could is also used in the conditional (parallel to would):
We could have gone if our car hadn't broken down.
And on the other side of the if, in the subjunctive:
I would if I could, but I can't so I won't.

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary:
May is used in auxiliary function to express purpose or expectation
(I laugh that I may not weep)
or contingency
(He'll do his duty come what mayO
or concession
(She may be slow but she is thorough).



--------------------------------------------------
Note added at 2002-12-25 17:25:52 (GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

And Chopra, we also wish you a very peaceful and happy new year, and we like your questions very much.

Refugio
Local time: 06:13
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in pair: 485

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Kim Metzger: More shades.
2 hrs
  -> Thanks Kim

agree  Rusinterp
4 hrs
  -> Thanks Rusinterp

agree  xxxOso: ¶:^)
14 hrs
  -> Thanks Oso!

agree  Paula Ibbotson
1 day8 hrs
  -> Thanks Paula
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5 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 5/5 peer agreement (net): +3
May vs. might


Explanation:
I’ll do an essay on may/might- and may I say, it’s a far from trivial question! I’m writing as a native British speaker, and not as a teacher of English, so my explanations are based on feeling rather than explicit rules (reality rather than theory?).

Can vs. may

I think here there is a difference in US/UK usage. I would say:

Can I come and see you next week when I’m in London?

The “May I” version I would regard as very formal and unnatural. However, I suspect that the US usage is a bit different, and the “Can I” version is regarded as somewhat uneducated. However, the difference may be due to “armchair grammarians” who talk about what they think ought to be the language rather than what is (you know, the ones who try to tell you “It is I” is correct and who would not countenance “Me and George went out for a drink last night.”).

May vs. might

“I may visit them if I have time,” is correct, but I’d be unhappy about saying “I might visit them if I have time” because the sequence of tenses sounds wrong, and “I might visit them if I had time” sounds a bit confused (I’m not sure if it’s past or future). I could also say “I may/might visit them next week” and in this case they feel equivalent to me in both register and meaning.

In the past (unfulfilled condition) this becomes: “I might have visited them if I had had time.” There is a tendency here to replace “might” by “may” and to say “I may have visited them if I had time” but I’d never use this myself and I’d regard it as possibly uneducated or possibly language in transition.

I could say “I may have visited them once when I was young, but I can’t remember,” and this is a different meaning of “may” expressing uncertainty of occurrence.



David Knowles
Local time: 14:13
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in pair: 612
Grading comment
Thanks

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Kim Metzger: You've nicely captured some of the shades of usage of can, may and might. I like your point about armchair grammarians and language in transition.
1 hr

agree  Paula Ibbotson
1 day7 hrs

agree  Refugio: Nicely captured indeed. And Kim, these terms are so interrelated that it does seem proper to have posted them together.
1 day7 hrs
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