Modals of life and death

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Rope 'may have saved girl', said the headline in the Metro alongside a photo of pretty 21-year-old British tourist Emily Jordan, and I felt my heart leap with new optimism. I had read the previous day that Emily had been trapped under water while riverboarding on vacation in New Zealand, and the story had said that although her river guide had been saved, poor Emily had drowned. Now it seemed that was inaccurate: she survived, and it may have been rescue ropes that saved her! But no, reading the full story confirmed again that she was dead. What had gone wrong with my interpretation process?

The answer is that in my variety of Standard English the modal verb may, which has the present tense form may and the preterite form might, absolutely must be in the preterite form to convey either a past time reference sense (John thought he might join us, but it didn't work out that way) or the counterfactual "remote conditional" sense (If you offered me money I might take it). The story made it clear that it is now thought that rescue ropes might have saved Emily if they had been available. I can interpret Ropes might have saved her — that is, as a remote conditional (the apodosis of a conditional claim with the prodosis clause implicit: it would have been possible for ropes to save her (if they had been available) but they didn't). But for me, the sentence Ropes may have saved her cannot have the counterfactual sense of the remote conditional: it means either "Possibly ropes have saved her" or "She has been saved, possibly by ropes."

But that's me. There is a slowly growing tendency for other Standard English speakers to use may for both past time reference (%John thought he may join us but it didn't work out that way — the prefix % is used to mark a sentence on which there are divided opinions within a dialect concerning the grammaticality of the example) or in a remote conditional context as in the headline just discussed.

The usage in the newly developing subdialect indicates a separation of may from might, and perhaps a very slow eroding away of the latter. (Might already sounds a bit pompous or 20th-century to many young American speakers.)

I am well aware of the trend the new subdialect represents. It is carefully documented by Rodney Huddleston in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, chapter 3, section 9.8.4, pages 202-203). But this time the headline-writer's use of it threw me. I thought poor Emily might still be alive, but it didn't work out that way.



52 Comments

  1. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    The headline has the same meaning for me as it does for you, and I'm North American (Canadian). If I remember correctly, you were born and raised in the UK (but lived in the US for a long time too).

    Incidentally, what about "could"? For me, I'm pretty sure "Ropes could have saved girl" is ambiguous, but leans toward "She was not saved, but if there had been ropes, maybe she would have been." But I think I can also interpret the "could" version as "it's possible that she was saved." However, that second interpretation seems a bit more chatty/informal and hence less likely in a newspaper headline.

    Take this all with the usual grain of salt: people's intuitions about their own uses are not always 100 percent reliable, and tomorrow I might (could?) give a slightly different description.

  2. Mark F. said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    I think I am partway down the path you describe. I read the sentence the same way you did, but the only way I could think to repair it was "maybe would have saved her." I could also have said "might would have saved her." I would have read "might have saved her" correctly, but I'm not sure I ever would have come up with it. My productive grasp on the traditional tense properties of "might" has always been week.

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    I think I first encountered counterfactual "may" in sports commentary: "If not for that fumble, he may have made a first down." It still sounds odd to me (US-born, first language English, age 67.)

  4. Sili said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    Might the fact that the headlinewriter saves two letters this way be an influence for the shift? (In headline-ese, not English at large.)

    I'm a mighter, myself, but of course I'm not a native speaker.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    "Ropes could have saved her" might sound a little too certain, but that seems better than the active confusion engendered by "may" or "might".

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    "Could ropes have saved the girl?" is more likely to be counterfactual than 'Ropes could have saved girl".

    And when you use the passive ("Could the girl have been saved by rescue ropes" it becomes even more likely to be counterfactual.

    'Might' of course is ambiguous, in that it can often be simply a subsitute for may. "He might have come" often has the same meaning as "he may have come" despite attempts by American copy editors to set up a clear distinction.

    I'm still waiting to see the obituary of a TEFL expert or linguist with the headline "Modals may have facilitated his demise."

  7. Liz said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    I was born and brought up in the UK too and read the headline exactly as you did. I think this use of "may" for "might" is becoming current because it sounds more polite. I'm not sure why that might be, perhaps all those consonants make "might" sound or look rougher. I also hear "should" for "will" quite a lot, so maybe a word with more uncertainty attached is considered more polite.

  8. Simon Cauchi said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    The use of "may" where "might" is meant has been a characteristic of New Zealand speech for as long as I can remember (I came here in 1961), but I can't now find any discussion of it. Kate Burridge's interesting article on "May versus might" in her Weeds in the Garden of Words (ABC Books, 2004) doesn't mention this use. I wonder where else besides New Zealand people speak what Huddleston on pages 202-203 of CGEL calls "Dialect B".

  9. AJD said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    Your comment "Might already sounds a bit pompous or 20th-century to many young American speakers" interests me, because I feel the same way about may. I share your judgments on the unavailability of may in counterfactual sentences; but moreover I generally avoid may in favor of might even for describing straightforward present-time possibility (He might be there right now) because modal may sounds fairly high-style or literary to me.

  10. Amy Stoller said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

    Born and bred in the USA, native speaker of American Engish: I have been mourning the death of "might" for some time. Glad to learn that I am not alone. I feel strongly that the distinction between "may" and "might" is a useful one. I can't think of any situation in which one might substitute one for the other without sowing confusion – and in my case, causing me to wince in pain. (That's my personal response. As a dialect coach, I leave my prejudices at the door.)

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    I can't think of any situation in which one might substitute one for the other without sowing confusion – and in my case, causing me to wince in pain.

    I can think of plenty.
    I may/might see you later.
    May/might I have the salt?
    I may/might have been there.
    I may/might have seen him.

  12. ben f. said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    What's all this doom and gloom about "might?" I'm a 23 year old native American English speaker and I almost never say "may." I can't even remember hearing anyone else saying it to me recently. In fact, I'm pretty concerned about the future of "may," but maybe it's just an Ohio/Michigan thing.

  13. language hat said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

    I wrote about this back in 2003, and even then I said "the obsolescence of the contrary-to-fact past 'might have'" had "already happened." If there was any doubt then, the intervening years have removed it; I can't remember the last time I heard "might have" used where I would use it — and I listen to NPR, which presumably cleaves to a slightly more formal register than most broadcasts. It's one of those changes I find truly annoying, because it genuinely does introduce ambiguity (unlike so many of the changes bemoaned by fuddy-duddies). But whether we like it or not is irrelevant; the language has changed, leaving a few isolated traditionalists behind.

    What's all this doom and gloom about "might?" I'm a 23 year old native American English speaker and I almost never say "may." I can't even remember hearing anyone else saying it to me recently. In fact, I'm pretty concerned about the future of "may," but maybe it's just an Ohio/Michigan thing.

    I think it's more likely you're just not paying attention. Start listening for it; once you start noticing it, you won't be able to stop.

    Incidentally, I'm rather surprised this hasn't been addressed before on the Log; it's one of the more startling recent changes in English.

  14. Matt said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    We North Carolinians would have no trouble interpreting the intended meaning had it been phrased this way:

    Ropes might could have saved her.

  15. John S. Wilkins said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

    Back in the days of being a subeditor I learned to torture the English language to get a headline that would fill the whitespace on the page. The result was a headline that could only mean something if you read the story, but the idea was to drag the reader in that direction. Also, a host of conventions have come about for headline writing that means the reader can work it out, as in this case. Not only does "may" save two letters, they are round letters that take an en space more or less, which may have mattered, where the thin space of "i" and "t" would push the headline over the length. Of such reasoning is headline writing made.

  16. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    Matt: this Matt can attest to the same intelligibility down here in Alabama. I also have to say I don't see might dying out 'round these parts, we use it quite often in our double modals (or modal-turned-adverb depending on the sequence and who you ask). This losing might in favor of may might could just be something from that weird Yankee talk :)

    (also I'll second/third/fourth it that may oftentimes sounds to me a forced formal register)

  17. Spectre-7 said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 1:37 am

    Californian here, and my intuition is that I tend to prefer might over may when both are available. In at least some constructions, may strikes me as the higher register, although there are some clear counter-examples. For instance, asking someone "might I…" seems awkward and unnecessarily old fashioned. "May I…" is marginally better, and "can I…" is actually the most comfortable and most likely to escape my mouth.

    As for other instances, I believe I'd say:"I might go to the store later.""I might've saved her if I'd been there.""You might be right."

    But this is all purely unscientific, so take my report as you will. I certainly wouldn't be too surprised if someone presented evidence proving my intuitions false here.

  18. NW said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 2:23 am

    In my early (BrE) years I avoided 'may' entirely, feeling it was somewhat formal and old-fashioned, and always used either 'can' or 'might'. As I became less prescriptive and paid more attention to the usages around me, I acquired natural use of both deontic and potential 'may', to the point now where the headline use is something I might say – though it still feels like a next-door dialect rather than my own, so to speak.

  19. Chris said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 5:45 am

    I (British born and raised) agree with Geoff's judgments, and they remind of a related but distinct bit of variation, a good example of which I heard on TV after a football (soccer) match. One of the commentators was summarizing the various goal opportunities during the game and remarked "Tevez might have had two", meaning there were two occasions on which it would have been feasible for Tevez to score, given his abilities. It took me a long while to work out this is what he meant, because for me this can only mean 'I'm not fully aware of the facts of the game, but, from what I know, it is possible that Tevez had two'. I think for me 'might' is no longer capable of expressing agent-oriented ability/feasibility ('could' does this and I would have used 'could' where the commentator used 'might') and instead only expresses external epistemic modality with no focus on the specific capacities of the agent. Moreover, in many contexts, the doubt that 'might' introduces has to be a present doubt – it cannot have been in the past even if the event in question was in the past. So for me the following sentence is nonsensical: "The car might have skidded off the road, but luckily it didn't." I'm pretty sure slightly more conservative speakers can say this though.

  20. Graeme said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 7:44 am

    You'll find just about every variant in this short Sunday Mirror report on Jacko's death:
    " A Jab May Have Saved Him"

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4161/is_20090628/ai_n32131106/

    Of course, proper 21st century usage would/may/might be: "A Jab May of Saved Him".

  21. Brett said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 7:46 am

    @Language Hat

    If you search the COCA, limiting it to SPOK:NPR, you'll find many recent instances of might used counter-factually (I assume that's what you mean when you say "the way I use it"). Overall "might have" vs "may have" ratio is about 7:8.

  22. Barbara Partee said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    My dialect is like Geoff's, and within the academic environment I live in, it seems to be in no danger — at least been caught up short by counterfactual 'may have' there. But in reading post-game interviews in any sport, 'may have' seems universally preferred, along with non-back-shifting of tenses in counterfactual conditionals. (I.e. where I would say "If he had caught the ball, we might have won", I may see "If he catches the ball, we may have won." Impossible in my dialect, but I'm getting used to it.) There's been discussion of this earlier — but I'm not good at looking up past posts, so I can't give links.

  23. language hat said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Californian here, and my intuition is that I tend to prefer might over may when both are available. In at least some constructions, may strikes me as the higher register, although there are some clear counter-examples. For instance, asking someone "might I…" seems awkward and unnecessarily old fashioned. "May I…" is marginally better, and "can I…" is actually the most comfortable and most likely to escape my mouth.

    The issue is not "may" and "might" in general, but specifically about counterfactual "may have." If someone tried to catch a ball but missed, would you say "He might have caught it if he'd run faster," or the newer "He may have…"?

  24. Faldone said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    In my capacity as a proofreader/document checker I frequently run into the phrase "…the contract may not be renewed…" The context is such that I know it means that there is a possibility that the contract will not be renewed rather than that the contract cannot be renewed and it is in a legal document, a licensing agreement between my company and our customer. I can't get it out of my head that the meaning should be that it is not permitted to renew the contract. One of these days I'm going to ask our company lawyer about it.

  25. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    I sometimes notice something similar in my own field (mathematics). I'll read things like "the polynomial may not be monic" where it is clear from context that the actual meaning is that it's possible for the polynomial not to be monic. For me, "might not" or "could not" would be better, but better still would be "may/might/could be not monic".

  26. Stephen Jones said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    I find it interesting that people think 'may' is a 'higher' register than 'might', particularly as it goes against the general rule the the distant tense ('past') is more formal than the unmarked tense ('present').

    I believe rather too many people have been asking 'Can I go out to play?' and being told in reply "You can, but you may not'.

  27. Amy Stoller said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    @Stephen Jones:

    I may/might see you later. – I must admit, you have me there. I might use the words interchangeably in such an instance.

    May/might I have the salt? – Not correct or current in standard AmE so far as I know. Possibly this is true only of the AmE I grew up with, but i think not. I think of this usage of "might" as exclusively BrE.

    I may/might have been there. – Only "might" will do in standard AmE. "May" makes no more sense in this context to me than "I can have been there." And yes, the usage of "may" here does make me wince.

    I may/might have seen him. – Only "might" will do in standard AmE. "May" makes no more sense to me in this context than "I can have seen him." Again, this usage of "may" is painful to me.

    This confirms me in my opinion that modern usage in both AmE and BrE, at least in the case of may/might, is shifting far too rapidly for my comfort. That the words ARE used interchangeably by many is without doubt. That they SHOULD be is, of course, a matter of opinion. I say they shouldn't be – but what I really mean by that is I wish they weren't (not aren't).

    @Barbara Partee:

    "(I.e. where I would say "If he had caught the ball, we might have won", I may see "If he catches the ball, we may have won." Impossible in my dialect, but I'm getting used to it.) "

    My memory is in accord with those who have mentioned hearing this sort of thing in sports broadcasts first, and now notice that it is cropping up in other contexts, and in print as well. Both are, at least, not ambiguous; and I don't mind the second so much, as it has the virtue of agreeing with itself, and of being pleasantly Runyonesqe. But such statements as, "If he caught the ball, we may have won," is downright painful to the ear – to my ear, anyway.

  28. Eric Baković said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    Some readers may (or might) like to know that Gabe over at Motivated Grammar also blogged about may vs. might earlier this month. Gabe's summary verdict:

    may and might should be regarded as essentially interchangeable, because different people don't agree on what the difference between them would be.

  29. Mark F. said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    Webster's Dictionary of English Usage also discusses counterfactual and past-tense may, and finds it commented on as early as 1966. They also say that they have more evidence of it from British than American sources.

    My impression is that, first, "might" became acceptable in sentences like "She might be hungry," where "may" would have originally been preferred. That created the sense that "may" and "might" are roughly synonymous, and so people have more recently begun extending that synonymy in the other direction, using "may" where "might" would normally be used. I looked up the OED entry to see if my idea is at all possible, and it didn't seem to be shot down. I will say that, if you turn to the OED for prescriptive guidance on when to use "might" vs "may", expect to spend some time on it.

  30. Stephen Jones said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    This confirms me in my opinion that modern usage in both AmE and BrE, at least in the case of may/might, is shifting far too rapidly for my comfort.

    I don't see any shift at all in the examples I have given. I have only checked twentieth century examples but apparently the equivalence has been around for at least a hundred years.

    I may/might have seen him. – Only "might" will do in standard AmE.

    How do you explain that the COCA has 297 entries for 'may have seen' then to only 248 for 'might have seen.'

  31. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    My immediate reaction (again, I am North American, aged 35):

    "I may have seen him" means I'm not sure whether I've seen him, but it's possible.

    "I could have seen him" means I didn't see him, but if certain things had changed, maybe I would have.

    "I might have seen him" feels a bit more context-dependent, but standing alone, it seems roughly synonymous with "I may have seen him". In the right context, it can mean the same thing as "I could have seen him", but would perhaps sound slightly stilted.

  32. Stephen Jones said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    "I could have seen him" means I didn't see him, but if certain things had changed, maybe I would have.

    It can also mean the same as 'I may have seen him'. It's the least likely of the three constructions for that meaning, but it's still possible.

  33. JuanTwoThree said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    I'm a BrE speaker and 40 years ago it was explained to me thus: Drop a lit match in a pool of petrol (gasoline). Afterwards, if you say "I may have died" you are trying to explain why everybody is carrying a harp. If you say "I might have died" then it's either an unlikely explanation for the harps (you were expecting pitchforks?) or you didn't die but you came close to it. "I could have died" is the same as "I might have died" except that perhaps the harps seem slightly more convincing. It rather depends on intonation.

    As far as speculation about present or future situations I happen to like the luxury of the nuances in "John will come, Dave may come and Pete might come" suggesting that Pete's coming is slightly less likely than Dave's. But English can rub along without them.

    There seem to be at least two dangers here. One that dialects, socialects and even idiolects seem to play a large part here and far too many people, present company excepted of course, over-pontificate based on their own limited 'lect. Another is that there's a particular kind of usually self-appointed and overly anal grammarian who hates shades of grey. This person says that because "may" for future possibility might sound like "have permission" then "might" is preferable. It's then a short step to saying "We may come to your house tomorrow" is Wrong unless it means "We have permission to come to your house tomorrow". Don't believe me? It didn't take long to find misinformation on the 'net. It rarely does. Somebody wrote this piece of nonsense:

    http://wiki.answers.com/Q/The_difference_between_may_and_might

    and may have got it from somewhere else. And I don't mean they have my permission.

  34. Doug said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

    Has this issue attracted prescriptive attention? Do English teachers tell their students it's wrong to say "a rope may have saved her" when she wasn't saved?

  35. Michael W said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Amy Stoller said:

    I may/might have been there. – Only "might" will do in standard AmE. "May" makes no more sense in this context to me than "I can have been there." And yes, the usage of "may" here does make me wince.

    What is the meaning there? if I'm expressing doubt about whether I was there or not, I'd use any of 'may', 'might', or 'could'. If it's definitely counterfactual, I'd agree with you that 'might' is the only one that makes sense to me (American, here.)

    And I always associated 'may' used that way with New Zealand or possibly Australian without knowing exactly why, but Simon Cauchi seems to back that up a bit.

    In the other context, those three express relative degrees of certainty (and the same in Skullturf Q. Beavispants's example).

    'could' would be the most negative, maybe indicating I'm only entertaining someone else's claim.
    "I could have been there, but I doubt it."

    'may' is fairly neutral. It suggests the memory is fuzzy or lacking in detail.
    "I may have been there. Was it in the summer?"

    'might' is a little more positive. It suggests that I'm inclined to accept it as true due to other factors, but I don't remember it specifically.
    "i might have been there. If I was still with Julie at the time, I probably was."

  36. JB said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    Geoff:

    It's "protasis", not "prodosis."

    Contrafactual "may" strikes me as improper. But I see it often in the New York Times. Maybe all newsmen are from "Dialect B" Land.

    Amy:

    "I may have been there" is good American English. It means "Maybe I was there" (but I can't remember or don't want to say).

    Crucially, it cannot mean, "Maybe I would have been there" (if some condition had been met). This counterfactual use of "may" is, I think, a solecism.

    JB, 24, New York

  37. mollymooly said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 2:15 am

    Checking LexisNexis headlines for the last 3 months, I find:
    * counterfactual "might have saved" : 5; 3xUS, 1xCanada, 1xUK
    * counterfactual "may have saved" : 10; 1xIndia, 1xCanada, 2xUK, 2xAus, 3xNZ
    * noncounterfactual "might have saved": 1xUS
    * noncounterfactual "may have saved": 12; 1xIsrael, 1xUK, 3xCanada, 7xUS

    I cannot say whether this shows less acceptance of counterfactual "may" in the US, or more fastidious subeditors.

  38. John Cowan said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 2:43 am

    Faldone:

    In standards writing, which is in some ways akin to legal writing, may not is forbidden for just that reason, and one writes must not or shall not, depending on the standards organization. The latter is used by ISO, allegedly because it isn't as confusing to people who don't know English well.

    You could simply change may not to may (after all, what may not happen, also may happen), or if that's confusing in a particular context, to may or may not.

  39. Zwicky Arnold said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 7:01 am

    Previous Language Log discussion:

    GP, 3/27/05: The disappearing modal: for those who'll believe anything:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002014.html

    AZ, 3/28/05: They may be midgets:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002016.html

  40. Adam said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 8:00 am

    "the prefix % is used to mark a sentence on which there are divided opinions…"

    I thought the prefix for this was "?" — what's the difference?

    I saw the same Metro headline the other day and thought it sounded wrong. Using "may" this way erodes a useful distinction … but if I argued that people should be taught to make the distinction, I guess you'd call that "prescriptivist poppycock"….

  41. Doc Rock said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    An argument for prescriptivism?

  42. Chris said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    one writes must not or shall not, depending on the standards organization. The latter is used by ISO, allegedly because it isn't as confusing to people who don't know English well.

    If I recall correctly, German muss nicht has the sense of English "need not" – i.e. indicating that something is not required, while English "must not" means that it is forbidden – even though the two verbs are cognates and their positive senses are basically the same.

    I think the situation where I would be most likely to use "might" in an expression like "I might have seen him" is to express uncertainty inside a counterfactual:

    If I hadn't been sick that weekend, I might have seen him

    (but it wouldn't be certain, even in that counterfactual scenario). Compare

    If I hadn't been sick that weekend, I would have seen him

    which implies reliability aside from the counterfactual. On the other hand

    ?If I hadn't been sick that weekend, I may have seen him

    seems wrong to me, because may implies that I'm not sure whether I actually did see him.

    So by my idiolect, the headline under discussion is clearly wrong and should be either "would have saved" (if their effectiveness would have been guaranteed if they had only been used properly) or "might have saved" (if salvation was only a possibility even with ropes in place)

  43. language hat said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    "I may have been there" is good American English. It means "Maybe I was there" (but I can't remember or don't want to say).

    Crucially, it cannot mean, "Maybe I would have been there" (if some condition had been met).

    This is not true, much as we might like it to be. In contemporary usage, that is exactly what it usually means.

    An argument for prescriptivism?

    No more than being annoyed by the tide is an argument for telling the tide not to come in.

  44. Ken Brown said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    In English "you must not" is a command – you might be able to do it but it would be bad and wrong. "You shall not" is much stronger. Almost a prediction. You will not be able to get away with it.

    "They shall not pass!" is a declaration of faith in eventual victory, shouted at the whole world.

    "They must not pass!" is an attempt to persuade your allies of the seriousness of the situation.

    (FWIW I would have prefered "might" to "may" in that headline. And "may" sounds posher than "might" to me in most contexts other than positive permission. So I think I might be more likely to use "might" than "may". Maybe.)

  45. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Incidentally, as a North American born in the 1970s (and I think some of my peers agree with me), the word "shall" is not actually part of our idiolect at all. We know it just as an obsolete word similar to, but perhaps slightly different from, "will", and we don't use it.

  46. Eli said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    I have to agree with the comments of ben f. and others: I don't think I've ever sincerely uttered may in my life. And, also, like others have mentioned, can and could feature prominently in preventing may from becoming an active part of my spoken vocabulary. With regards to the post, I share Geoff's intuition that Rope 'may have saved girl' undoubtedly means she's alive, and that a rope might have been the object that saved her.

    As an aside, I notice that contracting might into mighta for sentences like Did he do it?I dunno, he mighta, sounds worlds better than may-a (though in any case I will always choose might over may).

    As for other people's usage, though—I'll keep an ear out.

  47. Stephen Jones said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    but perhaps slightly different from, "will", and we don't use it.The COCA has nearly 3,000 less usages for 2000-2009 (6,400) than for 1990-1999 (9,200) so you may be on to something.

    But what do you say instead of 'shall' in these phrases
    Shall I open the window?
    Shall we go out now?

  48. roscivs said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    I also tend to use "can" and "could" far more often than either "may" or "might". However, for the past counterfactual, if I ever use something besides "could" (perhaps for emphasis), I'm pretty sure I would always use "might". I'll try and keep an ear open for what I hear people saying.

  49. sptrashcan said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    Shall I open the window? =>
    Should I open the window? /
    Do you want me to open the window? /
    (informal) You want I should open the window?

    Shall we go out now? =>
    Are we ready to go out now? /
    Do you want to go out now? /
    (informal) Wanna go out now?

    None of them have the exact same meaning, but in their overlap they cover the same region.

  50. IRB said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    I am beginning to investigate cross-dialectal differences in the usage of these modals, as well as 'could' and 'can' for an M.A. thesis. Does anyone know of resources related to or scholars working on modal usage in EngE (i.e. the English of England) that does not lump all of BrE together? Several sources I have consulted so far claim that 'may' is nearly absent from Scottish (and some Northern England dialects') usage, so it seems like a comparison of different dialects within Great Britain would be worthwhile. (FWIW, I am an American native speaker.)

    Re. the first sentence of the second paragraph of the blog post, it may be interesting to note that Peter Collins (cf. 2007 article, notably) has done corpus-based research on AmE, BrE, and AusE that leads him to conclude that 'might' can no longer reliably be considered the preterit of 'may'. (Of course this does not mean that 'might' is not still the preterit of 'may' in the writer's dialect nor that of many others.)

  51. Aaron Davies said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    in theory, in "you shall not pass" is an order, while "you will not pass" is a prediction. (unless you're speaking really archaically, in which case the latter is an expression of the other party's inferred wishes.)

  52. Tim Macdonald said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    I did the exact same double-take as Geoff on reading Metro that morning. Now, I'm sure I've seen a LanguageLog post on this before (almost certainly before the move to this new URL), but I can't find it using either Google nor LanguageLog's own search. I'm sure the main example was "we might have won" vs "we may have won". Can anyone find it?

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