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.

Truncating tongues

Can a tongue truncate? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, and it is the very act of speaking that actually creates the truncations I’m writing about today.

Truncation, I’m sure you know, is cutting off something. When you truncate a word, you cut part of it off. Unless you are the most formal and stuffy person on earth, you truncate words all the time when you speak. Probably the only time you wouldn’t truncate a word or two when you talk is when you’re trying to teach someone how to speak your language, in which case, your listener needs to hear every syllable you say.

The less formally you speak, the more you are apt to truncate, which is fine. You just have to be careful about how you transfer those spoken truncations to the written word.

What do I mean? Well, again, if you’re a very formal person,  you’re not going to truncate your words. In that last sentence alone, you can see that I’m not very formal in this post, because I truncated twice.

Did you catch it?

I truncated the word “are” by cutting off the “a” and replacing it with an apostrophe as I mashed it up against the word “you.” The “you” and the “are” in that sentence, if spoken, would have been said in such quick succession that they would have sounded as if they created one word. There is no such word as “youare,” though, so the sound is represented as “you’re,” and everyone knows what that means.

Now, what prompted me to write about truncations today is a book title I saw. Yes, a book title, which, in my mind, means some major publishing house needs to fire an editorial team. I’m not going to drop anyone in the grease by telling you the book title here, but suffice it to say that those editors have an interesting notion of what “till the end of time” could possibly mean.

“Till” the end of time. God help me, let’s look at the word “till” in some of its forms.

  • Till the soil.” In this instance, “till” is a verb. A person who “tills” soil will use some sort of tool to dig up earth, cultivate it, get it ready to receive seeds or plants.
  • “Fill the till in the cash register.” Here, “till” is a thing, a noun. A till is a part of a cash register that has various sized compartments that separate different denominations and types of money.
  • Glaciers melted and left till upon the land. As glaciers melt or retreat, they leave behind massive jumbles of rock, gravel, and dirt that compose moraines. Those materials, taken together, are called “till.” Again, a noun.
  • “Till” the end of time . . . Can you think of what “till” could mean in this instance? It doesn’t refer to any physical thing. It also doesn’t refer to any kind of an action, does it? Of course not. The problem with “till” in this instance is that the word is misspelled. The real word, the truncated word, is ” ‘-t-i-l”.

Notice that there is an apostrophe before the “t” to indicate a part of the word is missing.

The full word is “until.” It’s a preposition that represents the continuance of something. “Until the end of time” is the correct, full phrase. When spoken, “until” is often truncated so that only the last syllable is heard, which is fine. When written, however, if the writer doesn’t want to look like an idiot, the word should be either completely spelled out or written in its truncated form.

Can you see how people are making this error? It’s an easy one to make.

“Could have” is another phrase that’s easy to get wrong while writing. Say, “could have” out loud. Now, say it quickly. How does it sound? Sounds like “could of,” doesn’t it? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen writers write “could of.” Makes me crazy, especially when the writer is a media colleague, or worse, in the teaching profession.

There’s really no excuse for getting these truncations wrong. Truly. No excuse.

Writers, editors, I’m talking to you.

Have vs. Of: Should you, could you, would you get this correct?

When I moved to Florida from Chicago o-so-many-years-ago, I heard a lot of, “My ears don’t hear as fast as you talk.  Would you say that again?”  A funny and very tactful way people down here told me I spoke too fast.  Over the years, though, I’ve learned to slow myself down and only need a gentle reminder to here and there after a too-long phone call with the folks or a visit back home.  That reminder, by the way, generally takes the form of a blank stare from a cashier at the grocery store I frequent on my way home from the airport.

After a recent post, Michael Evans of Jacksonville, Florida, reminded me that those of us from the northern and eastern regions of the country aren’t the only people who speak too fast.  If you listen closely, you’ll hear that most people mash words together as they speak, which is fine . . . until they try to write what they’ve just said.

Now, for Michael, his hackles get raised when he hears people say of rather than have, as in “I should of known I sound like a fool when I talk like this.”  To be fair, I doubt anyone actually means to say of.  It just sounds like they do, because they’re nearly strangling off the breathy h from have as words tumble out of their mouths.

The problem with speaking this way, especially for new and young writers, is that people can – and do –  write the sound of speech rather than the words of speech.

What We Hear          What We Write          What We Should Write

Could’f or Could’v          Could of                            Could have or Could’ve

For writers, I suggest you do two things before you turn in any manuscript:

1.  Start from the end of your article or chapter, and read it backwards.  You’ll pick up loads of errors as your eyes stutter across the words and phrases.

2.  Read the entire piece out loud as though you’re teaching a class.  This forces you to think about what you’re trying to convey.   You’ll soon find that repetitive and incorrect words and phrases will begin jump out at you.

*Neal Wilmore passed on this advice to me and hundreds of other students through Alfrava Latham’s Refresher Grammar course at Charlotte High School back in Michigan.

Write the right words, and make them real

“Oh!  That’s so addicting.”  Actually, annoying is the word that comes to mind when I see or hear addictingAddictiveAddictive is a word.  Addicting is not a word, and it’s a teeny-bopper mistake that I am seeing more frequently from writers who should know better.

How can so many writers not know which words are real?  What’s gotten into everyone?  Should I blame IMing or TwitterFacebook, maybe?  I don’t know, but the problem is everywhere I turn it seems.

Progressive Insurance commercial:  “We’re the only ones that do.”  Ahh!  Only ones who do.  Who, not that.  The word ones refers to living, breathing entities, which should be the first clue to the writer of that particular ad that s/he’s made a mistake.

24:  “…safety deposit box…”  Where’s my pencil?  I need to poke out my eye.  Safe deposit box.  A safe deposit box is a box inside a safe, which is how those particular types of boxes got their names.  (I was a credit union executive before I was a full-time writer.  I think you can take my word on this one).

CNN:  “Impact Your World.”  You’re kidding, right?  The moment that show was advertised, I emailed CNN.  Let’s just think a moment about what ‘impact your world‘ means.  Imagine a world.  Now imagine a huge hand smacking the world.  The smack is the impact.  The hand had an impact on the world.  Impact needs to be followed by ‘on’ or ‘of’ or some other appropriate article to make sense.

When I see impact these days, I see it incorrectly used in place of effect or affect.  This tells me I’m working with either a lazy writer or a writer who want h/her work to sound important.  Impact is one of those words that is crisp to the ear.  Short.  Punchy.  This is why it is so often used in advertising and sales.  It’s one of those words that should tell  listeners (or readers) that they’re being sold something.  Someone wants to convince them of something.  Impact has gone the way of jargon, and should be avoided at (nearly) all costs, save when speaking about teeth.

History Channel:  “The answer lies…”  Oh, god, please, not the History Channel.  I love the History Channel, and the more I watch it, the more I hear this mistake.  “The answer lay…” People lie.  Things lay.  That’s your shortcut for today.  My colleague, Mignon Fogarty can give you some more examples, but for now, just remember:  if it breathes, it lies.

Pick your adQuality. Since when does the word quality not have to be quantified?  When you write, “That’s quality work,” what do you mean?  What kind of quality?  Good?  Bad?  Mediocre?

Badly. I leave you with badly.  When this word started to replace bad, I don’t know; but it has to stop.  When you write “I want it badly,” what you are telling the reader is that you don’t know how to want very well.  The sentence should read, “I want it so much,” or “I want it a whole lot.”  If you can want something badly, you should also be able to want something goodly, and we all know that’s just not an option.

Do you have any pet peeve words or phrases?  Share them here.  If you have a question for me on the editing process or just want to know how you can better please your editor, ask me.  I may be crabby, but I am here to help.

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Copyright © 2010 Diane Faulkner.  All rights reserved worldwide, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

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Text:  Copyright © 2010 Diane Faulkner.  All rights reserved worldwide.  Crabby Copy Editor™ and related trademarks appearing on this website are the property of Diane Faulkner.

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