If your friends ask you where you are going on vacation this year, would your response be: “We may go to Disneyland,” or “We might go to Disneyland.”? What’s the difference, I hear you ask.
For many writers, the terms are interchangeable. For others, “may” is regarded as the more polite term (“Mother, may I?”) and is used accordingly. Unfortunately, neither approach is correct since these terms are different in both grammatical meaning and usage.
Present vs. Past Tense
The grammatical distinction between the two words is tense-based—may is the present tense and might the past tense. Incorrect usage in this context is fairly rare because a native speaker would catch the error almost immediately:
- Incorrect usage: I thought I may go to the game
- Correct usage: I think I may go to the game or I thought I might go to the game
A Question of Possibility
The usage distinction between the two lies in the degree of likelihood that something will occur. Despite many writers being convinced of the opposite relationship, something that may happen is seen as being more likely than something that might happen. Politeness or formality has no influence on this rule:
- You may go the wedding reception if there is a cash bar
- You might go to the wedding reception if there is an open bar (and you will not have to pay for your drinks).
- You might go scuba diving in the Caribbean on your next vacation (once you get over your fear of water and get certified as a SCUBA diver).
- You may go to the aquarium next weekend to see the underwater sea life in a much safer environment.
A useful tip to remember the difference is that if something will be a mighty stretch for you to make (i.e., the likelihood of making it is very low), use might.
As with most rules in English grammar, there are a couple of exceptions:
- Since “might” is the past tense of “may,” you would use might in place of may when referring to something in the past, irrespective of the degree of probability that something actually happened: Peter and Jane might have fallen in love at first sight.
- If there is an implication of permission in the statement being made, using may could be interpreted as an indication that you do not have permission rather than the likelihood that it will happen. For example: “I may not have a second slice of pie for dessert,” could mean that you probably will not have a second slice or that you are not allowed to have one.
So, as a guiding practice, may is more likely than might.