“May” Vs. “Might”: What’s The Difference?

Quick summary

May and might are helping verbs that are often used interchangeably to express possibility or to ask permission. Might can be used as the past tense of may, as in He might have been world champion if he hadn’t gotten injured.

We often use the words may and might to describe things we think are possible or to ask others if we are allowed to do something. Are these two words completely interchangeable, or do they sometimes mean different things?

In this article, we’ll examine the words may and might, explain the differences between them, and provide examples of how we typically use them in sentences.  

When to use may or might

May and might can both be used as auxiliary verbs (helping verbs) that express possibility, as in We may/might have some left—let me check.

Traditionally, might is considered a weaker form of may. In other words, it expresses a lower degree of possibility that something will happen. Some people might intend to use the two words this way, but in practical terms they are often interchangeable when used in this sense. They usually mean just about the same thing.

May and might can also both be used in the context of permission, often as what’s thought to be a more polite substitute for can. For example, May/Might I use your restroom? In responses to such questions, it’s usually may that’s used, as in Yes, you may. Saying might in such responses is often meant to make fun of such a use of the word in a way that’s sarcastic or that introduces a condition, usually one that’s not serious, as in Yes, you might, if you knew the password.

May is sometimes used to express a wish, as in May you have success.

Might is sometimes used to express advisability, as in You might ask before you barge in, you know.

In its auxiliary verb sense, might can also be used as the past tense of may. It may seem strange to express possibility in the past tense (now that it is known whether something happened), but there are plenty of cases in which it makes sense to do it. One example is when it’s still uncertain whether or not something could have happened, as in He might have had a chance to become CEO, but he decided to retire early. Or as in She might have come if you had actually invited her. Of course, the word may can also be used in the same way to indicate past tense (She may have come if you had actually invited her).

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Examples of may and might used in a sentence

Let’s review by looking at examples of how may and might are typically used in sentences. 

  • You may win the lottery, but it is very unlikely. 
  • I might be able to finish before the deadline, but it will be close. 
  • I can tell you that the dragon may attack us at any time. 
  • May I borrow a tool that can cut this wire?
  • Might I ask why you declined the invitation? 
  • Can you let me know when I may be able to access my account again? 
  • We might have been able to go today if it hadn’t rained, but in any case we may try to go again tomorrow.

When should you use "can" instead of "may"? Learn more about these often-confused words.

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