When to use May or Might in English

by Laura Jones
March 23, 2021
man on laptop thinking about when to use When to use May or Might in English

Is it may or might? Many native speakers of English are not always sure what the difference is between these words. There are several different ways we use them in English. For each of the different uses, we’re going to start with the simplest explanation. This is often the way native speakers use may and might – we’re simple creatures! Then, we’re going to look at some more complex differences between the words, so you can be absolutely sure you’re using them correctly. 

May and might for possibility

We use may and might to talk about something that is possible in the present or the future.Lots of native speakers use these words interchangeably when talking about possibility. The construction of the sentence is the same: may / might + base form of the verb. 


MayMight
PresentWhy is he yawning? He may be tired.Why isn’t she answering the phone?She might have loud music on. 
FutureAre they coming later?They may come if they have time. Can we go to the park tomorrow?I don’t know, it might rain. 

At a more advanced level, you can start to choose between may and might when talking about possibility. We use may for something that is more likely to happen or a prediction that is based on facts; we use might for things that are less likely to happen, or for predictions not based on facts. Compare these sentences: 

  • We may go to France again for our holiday this year. We’ve been a few times and we love it. 
  • We might go to Thailand next winter. It’s just a thought but it would be wonderful! 
  • I may get a raise next year. We usually get them every year. 
  • I might win the lottery! 

May and might for possibility in the past

We can use may / might + have + past participle to talk about something that possibly happened in the past. 

  • Where is he? He might have got lost.
  • She may have sold the house now; she lived here 20 years ago. 

Native speakers use these constructions interchangeably, but might have is more common. Some people say that might have is the only correct construction here, but as I said, in real-life language, we use both. 

When to use Can vs Could in English

May and might for permission and requests

May

If we start at the basic level again, the most important thing to know is that we use may to ask for, give and refuse permission. Using may for permission is quite formal and very polite in English. You probably know that we often use can to ask for and give permission in an informal situation. 

  • May I go to the bathroom? Yes, you may
  • May I leave the table? No, you may not
  • May I borrow your car tomorrow? Of course! 
  • You may come any time during the morning. 
  • You may not borrow books from the library without a card. 

Might

We can also use might to ask for permission. This is very formal and you probably won’t hear it very often in normal conversation. 

  • Might I ask a question? Yes, you may. 
  • Might we know how much this costs? Yes, it costs…
  • Might I borrow your car tomorrow? 

If we want to report requests, might is the past tense of may

  • She asked if she might go to the bathroom. 
  • They asked if they might know how much it cost. 
  • He asked if he might borrow my car tomorrow. 

We very rarely use might to give permission. It is only used to ask for permission.  

Will vs Would in English

Suggestions and advice

We can also use may / might to make suggestions or give advice in an idiomatic way. The construction of this phrase is always the same: subject + may / might want to + verb. Might is much more common in this phrase, and it is only used with second or third person subjects. 

  • You might want to talk to an expert about that. 
  • He might want to see a doctor before it gets too serious.
  • You may want to sit a bit closer. 
  • They might want to hide that spray paint before the police arrive. 

Feeling more confident about using may and might? Do you think you might use these words more often now? 

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