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I Wish I May, I Wish I Might

The native English speakers among this blog’s readers will recognize the following little nursery rhyme: Star light, star bright, The…

The native English speakers among this blog’s readers will recognize the following little nursery rhyme:

Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight;
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

The words “may” and “might” can be pretty confusing. When should you use one vs. the other? Consider a sentence like “We may go to the game, depending on the weather,” which is hard to place as either more or less correct than the sentence “We might go to the game, depending on the weather.” Garner tells us that the words “occupy different places on a continuum of possibility,” with “may” expressing likelihood and “might” expressing “a stronger sense of doubt.”

So our word choice in the sentence pair above actually depends on the weather! If the weather has been gray but seems to be clearing up with a good chance of making for a good game night, then you “may” go to the game. If dark clouds are rolling in, then you “might” go.

When using one of these conditional words with a negating sentence, it’s generally going to be best to go with “might” because “may not” can be confused with “cannot,” which has a slightly different meaning.

Understanding that the two words exist along a continuum of possibility makes the little nursery rhyme a bit more poignant, for the speaker seems at first in less doubt and then in more as to the likelihood of her wish’s being granted, lending to that third line a growing sense of doubt, pathos, and urgency.

34 Comments

  1. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The weather may become more unstable so that we might have to change our plans. And the star may shine brightly until a cloud crosses its path so the wish might not get through.

    Yes, you may have opened a world of continuum possibilities. Great thought provoking!

  2. Speaking of using certain words, I was looking up a word the other day and it is a word that I have been wondering about for sometime and then yesterday I received two e-mails, one from one person and one from another person, both on the same subject, both of the e-mails were using the word ‘cancelled’ because the message was about a class that I was registered for that had gotten cancelled. Well, one e-mail used the word ‘canceled’ and the other e-mail used the word ‘cancelled’, I thought that I had seen this word spelled in both of these ways in various professional settings and so I often wondered which was the proper spelling. So since I received these two (professional) spelling versions of the word, I finally looked it up in the dictionary and guess what the dictionayry said – it said that a person can use either version, cancelled or canceled,

    1. There are other words- humour/ or humor..favourite/ or favorite, there are several other words, all are correct as to which side of the pond you live. One is american spelling and the other is UK. It can play havoc with spell check… and the way a UK person writes his blogs as opposed to an American.. Each can mis-understand the other. Thanks for enjoyable and eye opening read..;)

  3. En español mal expresado, hay un proverbio:
    “No hay palabra mal dicha, sino mal-decida” (Por lo de maldecir de maldición, y mal decir o mal expresarse)
    Usualmente se dice:
    “No hay palabra mal dicha, sino mal interpretada”

  4. I always ask people about this, and am never satisfied with the answer, for some reason…. A “continuum of possibility” is a good way to describe it. Is it the same in the past tense? ‘She might have gone’ vs. ‘she may have gone?’

    1. That’s a tricky distinction, and I can’t say that I know the absolute right answer. My gut feeling is that it would be appropriate to use “may” here if you mean to say “it’s distinctly possible that she went” and that it’d be appropriate to use “might” if there’s sort of a phantom “but” lurking in the margins. In other words, the same notion of a continuum exists, but the phantom “but” here actually serves to negate the proposition. That is, you might say “she might have gone, but the rain ultimately kept her home.” In other words, in the past tense, I think “may” implies uncertainty and “might” tends to suggest thwarted intent. Again, though, that’s just my sense after sleeping on the question, and I can’t cite chapter and verse from any source confirming the impression.

  5. I was taught that “may” has a meaning of “allowed to”, as in the question “May I say something?” The word “might” would express some kind of doubt, as in “I might expect some satisfaction, provided the performance is good”..

    After reading your article I am confused: are we tralking about something different here ?

    1. The distinction you’re thinking of is the distinction between “may” and “can,” where the former has to do with permission and the latter with ability. The “may” I deal with her has to do with a conditional proposition, just as “might” does.

  6. On the subject of wishing – lot of content about wishing these days – and I think some of it stems from the $530million MegaMillions Jackpot that will be awarded this evening! While on the topic, I don’t want to spam so I won’t link directly, but rough lyrics to my latest song “11:11 Staring Down 33″ can be found on my blog, as well as a link to the tune to which I will be singing. And of course there’s my “Wishilist Demo” video on YouTube (rgriles33) and a couple different versions of this song on my ReverbNation page!!

    I wish everyone tons of luck that bought tickets for tonight’s drawing!!!

  7. Interesting post.
    I always interpreted the “may” in the rhyme as the wish being granted by someone else. Like when I ask, “May I go to the toilet?”. Little me interpreted the “might” as hoping for the possibility of the wish coming true.
    Cheers!

  8. Interesting you mentioned native speakers as I think that is key to the usage. Because, I think the choice between may and might is totally intuitive, and I would say largely interchangeable, but a lot depends on the particular conversation, relationship, personal dynamics etc.

    Apparently they are modal verbs. About which I know nothing. Both present tense. Although might can also be past tense of may (!). I’m guessing the interchangeability of the present tense also affects our use of the past tense.

    That would indicate that we should say:

    She may do, he might do.

    And in the past, she might have done, but not she may have done.

    Interesting one. I still maintain it is a usage thing though, and if I wasn’t native English speaking I would be leaving it alone!

  9. Your always manage to find simple things to discuss, but they are always so worthy of discussion. You’ve done another fine job on this post. Consider yourself patted on the back. :)

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