WHEN MIGHT IS RIGHT
I’ve been reading a rather charming book that one of my kids thoughtfully gave me for my birthday, Righting the Mother Tongue, by David Wolman. Its subtitle is From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, but it’s really about much more than spelling, ranging as it does—admittedly in a highly compressed though entertaining fashion—over the history of written English from Alfred the Great (who, it turns out, did much more than burn cakes) to Google’s spell-check.
However, I was surprised, in a book about language, to bump up in the early pages against a mistake repeated at least a couple of times. Not one of spelling—it would be rather dire if a self-proclaimed book on spelling had typos—and in any case it would be difficult to come down hard on a writer who explains early on that he’s a “crap speller.” In fact, the undisguised misery of the part that spelling played in his childhood is laid out as the motive for the book: Wolman suffered greatly from being in the bottom spelling group in fourth grade (for all to see, because the different levels had different-colored spelling books) and from being shown up at home by his whiz of a younger brother in impromptu spelling quizzes at dinner staged by his mother. I have to say that if I were Wolman’s mother reading those parts I would drown in waves of guilt.
No, the mistake was grammatical: using may in a sentence that should have had might. Back in ninth-century England, the aforementioned King Alfred was burning cakes while his mind was occupied with how to get rid of the marauding Danes, who had invaded from the north. He managed it and a good thing, says Wolman, for “Had Alfred failed against the Danes, English may never have existed.” [my italics] May! Mr. Wolman, it’s might—”English might never have existed.” This is because, to cite the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage, “these words occupy different places on a continuum of possibility.” May is on the likely end of the continuum: “We may be able to go if Dad brings the car back.” Might, on the other hand, “expresses a stronger sense of doubt”: “We might have been able to go if Dad hadn’t totaled the car.” In particular, negative constructions—like “might never have existed”—usually call out for might: “I might have told you if you hadn’t been so mean to me”; using may here just feels wrong.
The possibility continuum
May and might are auxiliary verbs—like must or will or should, they add meaning to other, full-on verbs like go or eat or decide. May and might are also sometimes called modal, because, like the subjunctive, they have an effect on the “mood” of a verb. A few pages beyond his Alfred faux pas, Wolman discusses another king trying to save England from invaders: Harold II, who fought William of Normandy at the battle of Hastings in 1066. Here he has two consecutive sentences in which he uses may correctly (in the first) and incorrectly in the second:
A fierce patriot, Harold may have allowed fury to trump prudence, rushing to engage the Normans when he should have taken a little more time to let his troops recuperate. Rebuilding a few pillaged villages is a lot easier than winning back a kingdom, and a couple of days of rest may have boosted his army’s chance for success.
In the first sentence, when Harold and his troops have had to dash back southward to the Sussex coast from beating Vikings in the north, may works, since on Garner’s “continuum of possibility” it seems very likely that he “may have allowed fury to trump prudence.” The second sentence is a bit more complicated, but the way to decide whether it should be may or might is to consider what the reader is expected to conclude about the statement. It is not grammatically wrong to say “a couple of days of rest may have boosted his army’s chance for success,” but the meaning is wrong: here, on our possibility continuum, using may suggests that Harold’s army did indeed have success—and, of course, we know it didn’t. William of Normandy became William the Conqueror, Harold died on the battlefield when his eye was pierced by an arrow, and all the important people in England started speaking French. Thus the phrase should have read “and a couple of days of rest might have boosted his army’s chance for success”—the implication being that (a) they didn’t get any rest and (b) since they lost the battle anyhow we’ll never know.
The usual suspects
This isn’t a very vehement rant, because David Wolman’s book is a pretty enjoyable one and he lets the reader know from the beginning that he has no pretensions to pedantic-expert status. So it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt on his may/might mistakes. No such free pass, however, should be granted Righting the Mother Tongue‘s publisher, HarperCollins, whose job it is to make sure that their books (especially books about language!) are free of linguistic errors. May they never let it happen again!—TAMARA GLENNY