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Charles Butler hannibal at
Mon Jan 26 06:37:04 EST 2004


> "He was not wearing a safety helmet, which [may/might] have saved his
> If the person says "may" in that bracket, then hurrah, it's a wonderful
> thing, and a recommendation to all of us to wwear safety helmets: the fact
> of wearing one is probably what saved his life when he could easily have
> been killed.  [Since he was dead, that wasn't what ought to have been
> said.]

Isn't it rather more sinister even than that? If you say 'may', it reads
rather as if *not* wearing a safety helmet was what saved his life. Can't
quite see how that could happen, though people thrown clear of cars in
accidents have certainly said similar things about seat belts.

> The use of "may" where "might" would have been right is becoming frequent.
> I don't think it happens the other way round; if it does, I haven't
> any examples.

How about this? (I'm not sure how exact a parallel it is, but I offer it for
consideration.) Someone fails to turn up to a meeting, and someone else
complains: "He might have sent a text message to let us know he wasn't
coming." This, as it stands, is ambiguous: it could mean 'Perhaps he sent a
text message (and you just haven't read it)' or 'It wouldn't have hurt him
to send a text message.' If the word 'may' had been used, only the first
possibility is, er, possible.


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