Lesson #152: ‘If I May …’: Using ‘May’ And ‘Might’ To Ask / Give Permission And Express Possibilities

‘I am sorry I have been so long, ma’am,’ said she, gently, as she finished her work. ‘I was afraid it might tear out again if I did not do it carefully.’ She rose.

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‘I don’t know how to thank you for all you are doing; but I do love you, and will pray for you, if I may.’ ‘If you may, Ruth!’ repeated Miss Benson, in a tone of surprise. ‘Yes, if I may. If you will let me pray for you.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth (1853)

Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell, is the story of a poor, pretty seamstress – a woman who makes a living by sewing, mending, or embroidering clothes – who is noticed by a rich gentleman who offers to care for her when she loses her work. Amidst loss and rejection, she matures to become a young woman of integrity and talent in a new community, far from where she first lived. When someone from her past reappears in her life, she must choose between love, comfort and security, and the new, hidden life she had created.

Ruth is a gentle and humble character, and so she tends to use the modal verb forms ‘may’ and ‘might’ very often in her expressions.

✏️ Remember: modal verbs are verb forms that accompany a base verb to express its modality (that is, an advice, capacity, likelihood, obligation, order, permission, request or suggestion). In statements, modal verbs are always used before the base verb’s infinite, without the ‘to’: for example, ‘I may read that book later’ (not ‘I may to read that book later’ – this is incorrect).

Today we are looking at these two forms ‘may’ and ‘might’, what distinguishes them from each other, and which contexts we should use them in. I will conclude this lesson with 7 common fixed sayings that use ‘may’ or ‘might’, examples of which are also found in Ruth.

📝 #1 PERMISSION

✍️ ‘May’ and ‘might’ are often used to ask for permission. Of course you could use ‘can’ to ask for permission, and native English speakers often do; however, this is not exactly correct, because ‘can’ suggests that you are asking if someone has the capability to do something, rather than asking them if they are willing to do it. ‘Could’ is considered a better option than ‘can’, but the most polite and standard modal form to use when asking for permission is ‘may’ or ‘might’. 

📙 ‘May I trouble you with one thing? Will you be so good as to see that the little fellow has all that he wants?’

📙 ‘May I ask to whom this work was entrusted yesterday?’ inquired Mrs Mason, fixing her eyes on Ruth.

Most questions like this will use ‘may’ rather than ‘might’  the practice of using ‘might I …?’ is a little old-fashioned. When we do use ‘might’ (more to follow on why we might want to do this), we generally preface it with the short sentence, ‘Do you think I might …?’ or ‘Do you think you might …?’ 

✍️ You can also use either ‘may’ or ‘might’ to give permission. Notice how the ‘may I’ word order of the question is reversed in the answer: when someone asks you a ‘may I …?’ question, you can simply answer, ‘yes, you may’.

📙 ‘May I go?’ asked Jemima, chafing more and more. ‘You may,’ said her father.

Here is a similarly-worded question with a negative answer: 

📙 ‘Will you tell me how he is? Do you think I may go back to him?’ 

‘No, indeed, that you may not.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth 

📝 #2 PRESENT/ FUTURE AND PAST POSSIBILITY

Although many English speakers use ‘may’ and ‘might’ interchangeably, there are subtle differences between ‘may’ and ‘might’ that are worth knowing about.

When we are talking about the possibility of something happening, we usually speak in terms of a likely or strong possibility (‘may’) or unlikely or weak possibility (‘might’). These distinctions are most obvious when we are talking about a present or future possibility.

When we want to indicate a possibility in the present or future, we use this word order:

may + infinite or might + infinitive

As mentioned above, we exclude the ‘to’ that is normally a part of the infinite base:

📙 ‘… and, if I may suggest, it would be kind to allow your maid to return and attend upon her until she is sufficiently recovered to be restored to her friends …’ (present possibility – the suggestion is likely going to be accepted)

📙 ‘… I would likewise do all we can to make her feel that it is responsibility for what may become a blessing.’ (future possibility – it will most likely become a blessing) 

📙 ‘I do – I could see a way in which we might help her, if it were not for that.’ (present possibility – it is somewhat unlikely that the speakers will be able to help her)

📙 She might overtake him – she might – she might speak one farewell word to him, print his face on her heart with a last look – nay, when he saw her he might retract, and not utterly, for ever, leave her. (future possibility – it is rather unlikely that Ruth is going to be able to overtake him) 

To express a past possibility, we use the following structure/framework:

may have + past participle or might have + past participle

📙 ‘I can’t answer for what she may have done at other places.’

📙 ‘You may have forgotten it …’

📙 ‘Yesterday, when everything was gloomy, and you might have been aware that I was out of spirits, I heard nothing but expressions of delight …’

📙 ‘If there had been no child coming, we might have called her by her right name …’

📙 ‘You might have knocked me down with a straw when he told me.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth (italics above my own)

📝 #3 WISHES

The third way that we use ‘may’ or ‘might’ is to express wishes – our own for others, or for what we would like to happen.

May‘ is often used to wish someone well or to express a blessing: ‘May you have a happy birthday!’ or ‘May you have a long and healthy life!’ 

📙 ‘Helmsby! my poor girl – may God have mercy upon you!’

Might‘ is often used when we are wishfully thinking about something that could happen but more than likely will not. It is often prefaced with ‘if’:

📙 ‘If I might see him! If I might see him! If I might just ask him why he left me; if I had vexed him in any way; it was so strange – so cruel!’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth 

📝 #4 FIXED EXPRESSIONS

Here are 7 fixed expressions or short phrases (within longer sentences) that almost always use ‘may’ or ‘might’:

(1) ‘whatever she/he/it might be … she/he/it was [an emphasised quality]’ 

This expression helps to emphasise a particular quality or characteristic – in this case, Jemima’s gentleness with the younger girls:

📙 The little girls were hushed into silence by her manner; for whatever she might be to those above her in age and position, to those below her Jemima was almost invariably gentle.

(2) ‘it might prove to be’ – Something will probably be shown to be real or true.

📙 He hoped that Mr Pilson did not mean to allude to bribery; but he did not express this hope, because he thought it would deter the agent from using this means, and it was possible it might prove to be the only way.

(3) ‘that good might come’ – This short phrase is placed at the end of a sentence. It stresses that some action or activity was done so that something good would result from it.

📙 No present plan of usefulness allayed the aching remembrance of the evil he had done that good might come.

(4) ‘you may rest assured’ – You can be easy and at peace about something, you are being reassured that all is well because of something the speaker is promising to do.

Here the speaker is promising not to do something, and asks the listener to trust her:

📙 ‘I certainly shall not do it, ma’am; you may rest assured of me.’

(5) ‘that / she / he / it might [transitive verb base] something’ 

📙 But still his old regard for her, for Leonard, and his esteem and respect for the Bensons, induced him to lend a willing ear to Jemima’s earnest entreaty that he would go and call on Mr Benson, in order that she might learn something about the family in general, and Ruth in particular.

(6) ‘you may depend on it, if / that … ‘ – This is a kind of promise to the listener, found mostly in British English.

📙 ‘And you may depend upon it, if it really is the best for Leonard, she will come round to it by-and-by.’ 

(7) ‘you may well say …’ – This is used when repeating something that has been said before. It expresses emphasis and even surprise or shock:

📙 ‘You may well say “with all that she has done”!’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth 

Perhaps these examples have piqued your curiosity to read Ruth for yourself – a thoughtful novel that was actually very controversial in 1853, the year in which Elizabeth Gaskell published it.

All in all, I hope you have found this lesson useful and that it will help you to become more conscious of the different purposes and usages of ‘may’ and ‘might’.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)