He may/might have drowned.

rightnow

Senior Member
Spanish
"He may/might have drowned"

What differences in meaning are there here? (it's meaning is not that the man narrowly escaped drowning)
 
  • erbp

    Senior Member
    Bilingual English Spanish
    "He may/might have drowned"

    What differences in meaning are there here? (it's meaning is not that the man narrowly escaped drowning)
    I feel that "He may have drowned" implies doubt. The person who is speaking doesn't know what happened to the subject.
    I feel that "He might have drowned" implies disclosing a possibility of something that has not occurred. The person who is speaking knows the subject didn't drown but knows (that under the circumstances the subject was living) he could have drowned.
     
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    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Might is a frequent substitute for may in American English. So "might" could indicate 1) the person doesn't know or 2) that it was a possibility that was known to not have happened but could have happened under the circumstances. But I think in American English that second possibility would likely be stated using the word "could".

    - He might have drowned. (The speaker is not certain what happened to him.)

    - He could have drowned. (He didn't, but it was a definite possibility.)

    As always, the exact sentence and the context provided by surrounding sentences will determine the true meaning in each case with these kinds of words. For instance, "He could have drowned" could also represent the same idea as "he might have drowned" [the speaker doesn't know]. Again, context rules.
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    There is basically no difference between the two forms. Any particular native speaker is likely to favour one or the other in a particular context, but there is no overarching rule which dictates that one should be used in preference to the other.
     

    erbp

    Senior Member
    Bilingual English Spanish
    Thank you for answering kentix and Glasguensis.
    You have both been able to make me feel as I did 70 years ago, sitting in the living room, enjoying my mother and grandfather's conversation, trying to teach me how to speak correctly.
     

    rightnow

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    I feel that "He may have drowned" implies doubt. The person who is speaking doesn't know what happened to the subject.
    I feel that "He might have drowned" implies disclosing a possibility of something that has not occurred. He knows the subject didn't drown but knows (that under the circumsntances the subject was living) he could have drowned.
    Present uncertainty about a past situation: It's meaning is not that "the man narrowly escaped drowning".
    Could we please have some context?
    present uncertainty about a past situation The American Heritage Dictionary entry: might
     
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    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    A comparison with another modal verb, used similarly, suggests that might may be more tentative than may.
    He will have drowned. (I am willing to accept responsibility for putting this hypothesis forward)
    He would have drowned. (I am barely willing to accept responsibility for putting this hypothesis forward)

    The same goes for can't (only used in the negative and sometimes interrogative in this sense) and couldn't.
    He can't have drowned.
    (I am willing to accept responsibility for putting this inference/hypothesis forward)
    He couldn't have drowned. (I am barely willing to accept responsibility for putting this inference/hypothesis forward)
    He could have drowned. (I don't feel that this one is marked as tentative - it has to substitute for *He can have drowned*, which is not grammatical)

    But in practice the difference between may and might is less distinct, I think.

    Of course, you can't compare it with must, which only has one form; and comparison with shall/should is fraught with difficulties!
     
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    SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    "He may/might have drowned"

    What differences in meaning are there here? (it's meaning is not that the man narrowly escaped drowning)

    Isolated sentences are never helpful. Modal verbs always depend on context and speaker perspective. In addition to all that's been said, "may" could be about supposition, and "might" about probability. What's the difference between supposition and probability? Hard to say without context and speaker perspective. As already said, it could very well be that "may" and "might" are completely interchangeable, as far as the speaker is concerned, meaning that whatever differentiates the two modal verbs pretty much cancels out, especially since we have a perfective construction (with the past participle "drowned"). In fact, we can't even tell, from this isolated sentence, if the poor guy actually drowned or not.
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    What point are you trying to make with your dictionary link? We can see that you have found something in a dictionary. The dictionary compilers have put a usage note. It is their opinion, and it is guidance, not a rule. Other dictionaries may have usage notes that contradict this one. Not all English speakers agree, and there is no authoritative body which determines who is right.
    In English the context and the way of speaking carry far more weight than the choice between two similar words. Looking at this sentence in isolation and trying to determine a nuance between the two verbs is completely pointless.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    There are several issues with the verb may/might.

    First, it is about possibility, which is impersonal. So, for example, "He may have drowned" just means that his having drowned is a possibility.

    Second, it is defective. It has no gerund, no infinitive, no past participle, no present participle. This leads to various gyrations when it comes to compound verb forms as well as to all sorts of ambiguity.

    May is present tense; might is past tense, but it doubles as conditional mode, which is tenseless. For example, if we want to say that his having drowned was a possibility, we use might as simple past tense: He might have drowned. But if we want to say that his having drowned would be a possibility (under specified or unspecified circumstances), we can't use "would may" because "may" is present tense and the verb has no infinitive. Instead, the conditional form of may is might, just like the past tense form: He might have drowned (had you not been there to save him).

    Similarly, if we want to say that his drowning has been a possibility, we don't have the option of using a perfect form of may because it has no past participle. This forces us to use a perfect infinitive of the other verb, and we get "He may have drowned". Is that a different meaning than I gave for this sentence above?

    So the only way to disambiguate is to provide context in addition to the sentence itself.
     

    rightnow

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    There are several issues with the verb may/might.
    • Usage of this word in the sense of possibly is considered incorrect by some speakers and writers, as it blurs the meaning of the word in the sense have permission to. These speakers and writers prefer to use the word might instead. may - Wiktionary
    Also
    (formal, literary) I hope he may/might succeed Traducción en español de “may” | Collins Diccionario inglés-español

    (Archaic) Used to express permission in the past: The courtier was informed that he might enter the king's chambers
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    • Usage of this word in the sense of possibly is considered incorrect by some speakers and writers, as it blurs the meaning of the word in the sense have permission to. These speakers and writers prefer to use the word might instead. may - Wiktionary
    I have heard of avoiding may for permission except when the context is clear, but this is first I've heard of avoiding may for possibility because it is sometimes used for permission.

    The "permission" sense of may/might is based on the original "ability" meaning and is limited in use, mostly as a "polite" substitute for can/could in the same sense, and mostly in first-person questions. And using might for simple possibility in the present only makes it sound more "conditional".
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    There is basically no difference between the two forms. Any particular native speaker is likely to favour one or the other in a particular context, but there is no overarching rule which dictates that one should be used in preference to the other.
    I quite disagree. Many people get it wrong (my wife and I occasionally argue about this) but the principle is quite simple:
    • He may have drowned - perhaps he did in fact.
    • He might have drowned - but he didn't.
    • Napoleon might have won the battle of Waterloo :tick: (...if things had been different.)
    • Napoleon may have won the battle of Waterloo :cross: (Don't be silly, weren't you listening in your history lessons?)
     

    cidertree

    Senior Member
    Béarla na hÉireann (Hiberno-English)
    I quite disagree. Many people get it wrong (my wife and I occasionally argue about this) but the principle is quite simple:
    • He may have drowned - perhaps he did in fact.
    • He might have drowned - but he didn't.
    • Napoleon might have won the battle of Waterloo :tick: (...if things had been different.)
    • Napoleon may have won the battle of Waterloo :cross: (Don't be silly, weren't you listening in your history lessons?)
    I think the difference is negligible in most contexts (modern usage tends to group may and might as "could"):

    • He may have drowned - we don't know the cause of death yet.
    • He might have drowned - we don't know the cause of death yet.
    • The battle of Kursk may have determined the outcome of WW2.
    • The battle of Kursk might have determined the outcome of WW2.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I have heard of avoiding may for permission except when the context is clear, but this is first I've heard of avoiding may for possibility because it is sometimes used for permission.
    Yes, this advice flies in the face of all natural usage and all the history of modal verbs.

    I think historical linguistics is relevant here. In West Germanic languages (and maybe more widely) the modal verbs are a distinct group marked by
    a) conjugational peculiarities and
    b) an odd and characteristic duality of semantic function, comprising
    1) “epistemic” meanings concerned with how certain we are of facts and
    2) “deontic” meanings concerned with power relationships between people and/or forces of nature.

    I won’t go. - asserting my authority over my future
    They won’t be there yet - surmise

    Thou shalt not kill - God throwing His Weight around
    They should be there now (inference etc)

    You may go (relaxation of a prohibition)
    That may/might be true (speculation etc)

    I must go (I am under the control of factor)
    That must be true, I suppose (inference)

    I can swim (power over water)
    That can’t be true (inference)

    The frequent use of modal verbs, often idiomatically, in the conditional mood makes the picture even more complex.

    The more sensible advice is: If you want to be unambiguous don’t use modal verbs; if you want to sound like a native speaker put one in every sentence.
     
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    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I have heard of avoiding may for permission except when the context is clear, but this is first I've heard of avoiding may for possibility because it is sometimes used for permission.
    Yes, this prohibition flies in the face of all natural usage and all the history of modal verbs.

    I think historical linguistics is relevant here. In West Germanic languages (and maybe more widely) the modal verbs are a distinct group marked by
    a) conjugational peculiarities and
    b) an odd and characteristic duality of semantic function, comprising
    - 1) “epistemic” meanings concerned with how certain we are of facts and
    - 2) “deontic” meanings concerned with power relationships between people and/or forces of nature.

    I won’t go. - asserting my authority over my future
    They won’t be there yet - surmise

    Thou shalt not kill - God throwing His Weight around
    They should be there now (inference etc)

    You may go (relaxation of a prohibition)
    That may/might be true (speculation etc)

    I must go (I am under the control of factor)
    That must be true (inference)

    I can swim (power over water)
    That can’t be true (inference)

    One of the conjugational peculiarities present in all these verbs is this one:
    - deontic past tense: I could swim
    - epistemic past tense; that can’t have been true.

    The whole picture is made even more complex because these verbs are used in all these senses, and often idiomatically, in the conditional mood.

    The more sensible advice is: If you want to be unambiguous don’t use modal verbs; but if you want to sound like a native speaker put one in every sentence.
     
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    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    I think the difference is negligible in most contexts...

    • He may have drowned - we don't know the cause of death yet.
    • He might have drowned - we don't know the cause of death yet.
    • The battle of Kursk may have determined the outcome of WW2.
    • The battle of Kursk might have determined the outcome of WW2.
    Negligible??? The two examples you quote are life-and-death issues!!! You make them "negligible" by ignoring the differences which I stated quite clearly in #17.

    That argument sound like a colour-blind man saying that the difference between red and green lights is negligible, because he can't see it. :)
    (modern usage tends to group may and might as "could")
    Now, I think that's ambiguous. Do you mean that "modern usage tends to group may, might and could all together as synonymous?". I don't believe we've been reduced to that degree of illiteracy yet. But in any case, the problem raised in this thread isn't about the general use of may/might/could, but the very specific matter of usage in the present perfect tense.

    I may go tomorrow = I might go tomorrow: on that I concur.

    I may have gone yesterday = perhaps I went, but I'm not admitting it.
    I might / could have gone yesterday = I didn't go, but the possibility was there.
     
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