Three Stages of Ability – May, Might, and Can


You may remember his name.”

Thank you, NBC, for allowing me to remember Hannibal Lecter‘s name. Had the powers-that-be on your mega-broadcasting company’s brilliant marketing team not been so gracious, I would never again be able to recall the fictional serial killer‘s name.

That was my knee-jerk reaction upon hearing the tag-line for the new television series, Hannibal, which is scheduled to air Thursday, April 4th, at 10:00 p.m. EST.  “May,” I thought to myself, implies permission is needed to do something. Of course, as quickly as that thought left my mind, my mom’s voice echoed in my head. “I don’t know, can you?” It’s what she unfailingly replied whenever one of us would ask, “Ma, can I (enter standard childhood want)?” That was her way of letting us know we should have asked, “May I?” instead of, “Can I?”

Now, back to the Hannibal trailer. Turns out, “may” was used correctly in this instance. Here’s why:

May” is a helping verb called a modal. Modals give context to verbs, let the reader or listener in on the attitude or mood of the verb. You would use “may” when you kind of know, but don’t definitely know the response to a question.

For example, say you’re sweetie wants you to go to a baseball game. You like baseball. The game is on a weekday. You have to work. The day has come to buy tickets. He calls and asks you, “Do you think you’ll be able able to go?” You have just one more thing to do to complete some world-changing project. It’s more likely than not you’ll be able to get away, and you want to do so . Since that’s the case, the outcome is likely, so you can respond, “I may be able to meet you there. I just have one more thing to finish. I’ll know more by lunch time.”

So, when would you use “might?”

Might,” also a modal, is used when an outcome is something you’d most likely never do or are reluctant to do. You’re less certain, but there’s wiggle room, how ever slight

Take the baseball scenario, but change your affinity for the game. In this case, you know you’re working on a project and, if you buckled down, you could finish in time to go to the game. The thought of sitting in the hot sun for two-and-a-half hours on a rock-hard seat splattered with stale beer, however,  jump-starts your gag reflex. You know you don’t want to go, but you also know that your sweetie has a way of charming you into doing what he wants. In this case, if pressed, you could go to the game, but you could also make a very compelling case to not go. You are on the fence, though, so you could say, “I might go, but I’m still working on the project that’s due tomorrow morning,” or, “I might not go, because I’m still working on that project due tomorrow morning.”

Are there any exceptions?

Of course. This is the English language after all.

In the first exception, you need to be aware that “might” is the past tense of “may.” So, let’s say that the day after the game, your boss asks your assistant if you got to use the box seats. The assistant thinks you probably did but doesn’t really know, so he would tell your boss, “Yeah, she might have been able to use them.” Here, remember, the conversation is about a game that was played yesterday. In the past.

The second exception is a little strange in that the conversation must be about something that isn’t happening. Again, in the baseball example, you ask your friend, a college pitching coach, what pitch she thinks is coming up, she could say, “He ‘might‘ throw a knuckleball.” If “may” is used, the sentence would imply that the pitcher was just given permission to throw that rarest of pitches that never fails to jelly-leg a batter right back into the dugout.

In summary:

May = likely outcome or permission

Might = less likely outcome or uncertainty, as well as past tense

. . . and “can?”

Well, remember what my mom asked? “Can” refers to ability. “I can put away a hot dog, large pop, and a bowl of chocolate chip mint Dippin’ Dots in the course of one game.”

I do have that ability, by the way, and I exercise it whenever I go to a game.

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