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I might

December 10, 2020

Here’s an interesting usage I’ve been noticing recently – mostly because I use it a good deal myself. It’s the deployment of might to mean will, shall or going to. For example: I might stop off and have a pint while I’m there. Or: I might finish that curry that’s in the pan. Or: I might knock off work for the day now…

In all these cases I am absolutely going to do the thing proposed, there’s no doubt about that. But saying I might do it sounds more polite, somehow. More tentative, more reasonable, less of an egotistical statement of intent. I’m not the only person who uses might in this way. My wife does too. Is this widespread? And is it a recent phenomenon, or has it been going on for ages and I’ve only just noticed? 

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11 Comments
  1. Sarah Parnell permalink

    What I’ve noticed is a great decline in the use of the word ‘might’, with people using ‘may’ instead – as in ‘I may have a glass of wine with my dinner’, which to me means I’m allowed to have one, not that I’m thinking about it…

  2. Hi Sarah. Yes, the distinction between these two words is getting blurred. ‘May’ can certainly be used in the sense of ‘allowed to’ that you mention – eg ‘May I get down from the table?’ as I was taught to say as a boy. But I think that usage is a little old-fashioned now.

    But ‘may’, like ‘might’, can also be used to indicate possibility. The difference is 1) ‘might’ rather than ‘may’ should be used in the past tense (He thought he might have a glass of wine); and 2) when used in the present, ‘might’ is more tentative than ‘may’. If something may happen it is fairly likely; if it might happen that is more speculate and uncertain. But not many people observe this distinction any more.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    There is also the usage in America, mainly in the South I think, of “might could”.

  4. Didn’t know that. But does it indicate uncertainty, or intention?

  5. Simon Carter permalink

    Uncertainty, I think. There are other examples of this sort of emphatic doubling up (don’t know the technical term) in America – rich millionaire comes to mind.

  6. It is similar to sense 16a in the OED, ‘Expressing objective possibility…be permitted by circumstances to’, e.g. in Love’s Labour’s Lost v.ii.92, which the OED says is rare, but I think might to mean something certain is new.

    • Hi Nicholas. Thanks for this. I have just looked up that line in Love’s Labours Lost: ‘Toward that shade I might behold addrest/
      The King and his company’. To me, ‘might’ in that context seems simply to mean ‘was able to’ – so, not the meaning I had in mind!

  7. I don’t think it’s new particularly. For example, “I might just do that” as a response to advice seems pretty standard.

    Do you think it’s like with the second conditional “Would it be OK if I sent that letter tomorrow?” in that you’re suggesting that you know it’s unlikely/impossible for it to be OK to send the letter — so you’re offering whoever you’re speaking to the chance to say “no, please send it today” without forcing them to be rude?

    Offering someone a way to say “no” politely is polite. Saying “I might have a pint on my way home” suggests that if I were then given a reason in response not to have that pint, I might accept it.

    I might be talking nonsense, though.

  8. Mark Brafield permalink

    I caught myself doing exactly this the other day. My son asked me if I had seen a crucial piece of his Playstation IV, a small piece of red plastic. I recalled that I had thrown it away that morning, thinking it was post-Christmas rubbish. I said ‘I will be honest; I might have thrown it away’. This made quite clear that I had thrown it away, but softened the blow, or at least prepared for it more gently. Happily, I was able to retrieve it quickly so no harm was done, but I felt uncertain about what I had said; was I letting him down gently, or was it a white lie to get myself off the hook ?

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