Grammar Gremlins: I Wish I May . . .


Star Light, Star Bright

I Wish I May, I Wish I Might . . .


Apparently may and might have been dancing together for a long time. In the present and future tenses, there’s not much to choose between them. Generally speaking, might suggests a little more uncertainty than may. I suspect a lot of the difference rests in the eye or ear or the writer or reader. I may come to the party seems a little more likely than I might come to the party, but not by much. These are shades of meaning; there’s no grammatical rule here. There’s no rule at all, really.


But there is one instance when grammar sneaks its cranky nose in, and that’s the past tense. If you look in your dictionary, you’ll find that might is in fact the past tense of may. When writing in the past tense (as most fiction writers do, most of the time), might is usually called for.


George looks like he may punch Joe in the nose.

George looked like he might punch Joe in the nose.


In this case we want the two verbs in the sentence to agree (Theodore Bernstein includes this in a remarkably long discussion of “sequence of tenses” in The Careful Writer). By extension, we probably want the whole paragraph to sound like it was written in the past tense.


Jane couldn’t find George. He might be looking for Joe. That did not bode well.


There may (or might) be an exception in the past perfect tense. George may have been looking for Joe and George might have been looking for Joe might (aha!) carry the same slight shades of meaning as in the present or future.


If you’re writing in the past tense, you can’t go wrong with might.


gremlin-2Totally unrelated vocabulary tidbit: I’ve always thought the word kids (referring to children—I don’t think I’ve ever written about baby goats) sounded too modern to use in my limited forays into historical fiction. But according to Sol Steinmetz in Semantic Antics (an entertaining book on the unfamiliar original meanings of familiar words, which I’ve been reading during TV commercials), this usage was established by the early nineteenth century. He quotes Lord Shaftesbury, writing in his diary in 1841, “Passed a few days happily with my wife and kids.”

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