I Wish I May I Wish I Might Learn to Use My Modals Right

Contributor: Kristen Gardiner. Lesson ID: 11027

May I ask if you might be interested in this lesson on modals? I hope you may, and not might, be ready to learn the differences between "may" and "might" so you could, even may, learn proper grammar!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Anyone who has ever been in a classroom or watched a cliché TV show or movie is familiar with this exchange:

may try comic

The question is, "Why do teachers continue to make this joke? What's the punch line?" If you don't get it, keep reading!

I'll tell you why the joke is funny, but I'll have you know I am breaking teacher code.

The words "can" and "may" are both modal verbs; these are auxiliary verbs that express such concepts as necessity, possibility, ability, and probability.

In this case, it's all about definition and verb confusion. It is absolutely necessary that you choose the correct words when you write and speak. You don't want to miss out on the joke, do you?

The word "can" means "to be capable or able to do something." For example, in the illustration above, Billy is literally asking his teacher if he is physically capable of getting up out of his seat, getting himself to the lavatory, and whatnot. Do you get it now? Think about how you typically use the word "can" in everyday conversation.

I can do a handstand. I can play the piano. There are a number of things that I can physically do; I am capable, I can perform many actions. (As a quick aside, the word "could," often confused with "can," is simply the past tense of "can." Use "could" when talking about things that you were once able to do, but can no longer do. For example, when I was younger, I could run a mile in less than five minutes. Can I do it now? No, I cannot.)

"May," on the other hand, is a bit different and is often misused along with its partner, "might."

Now that you know the meaning and usage of the modal verb "can," let's move on and learn the differences between — and the correct usage of — "may" and "might."

They are commonly thought to be interchangeable, but there is a difference in meaning that may make a difference in what you mean to say and what you are actually saying.

Here's a list of how the two words are properly used in the English language:

1. To express (future) possibility
Use "may" when there is an actual possibility the event will happen.

  • There is a 70% chance of rain: It may rain today. (= It is very likely that it will rain today, so I'm going to grab an umbrella.)
  • I may go to the movies tonight. (=I have nothing else to do and I have a ride, so I'll be having popcorn for dinner.)
  • I wouldn't talk to Tim right now. He may still be angry since his team lost. (=Are you kidding me, he's fuming mad!)
  • She's very good; in fact, I think she may win the competition. (=She is one of the best gymnasts I've ever seen; there is a major chance that she will win!)

Use "might" when the event is unlikely to occur.

  • I might go to homecoming with Bob; we'll see how things go. (=Seriously, I'd rather stay home and fold my brother's gym socks.)
  • There is a 20% chance of rain today; It might rain today. (=It's most likely that it will not rain, so I'm not going to bother with the umbrella.)
  • Maggie might be able to join her friends at the movies; it all depends on whether or not she finishes her English assignment. (=There is no way she's going to finish that assignment in time to go to the movies, especially since she procrastinated for two weeks.)
  • My family might go on a Hawaiian vacation this winter. (=Unless my parents have to work, which they usually do, and it will be the same as last year, when they said we were going to Disneyland, and all we did was stay home and watch television.)

2. To give permission

  • You may leave the table once you have finished your meal.
  • You may take one cookie.
  • When you have finished your assignments, you may go out with your friends.

"May not" can be used to NOT give permission or to prohibit someone from doing something.

  • You may not leave the table until you finish your peas.
  • You may not go to the homecoming dance.

3. To ask for permission

  • May I use the lavatory?
  • May I borrow your pen?
  • May I have a cookie, please?

4. To talk about typical occurrences

"May" is used in academic and scientific language to refer to things that typically happen in certain situations.

  • Drivers may feel tired if they do not take a break every two hours.
  • Adults may find it difficult to sleep if they use technology before going to bed.
  • This medication may produce serious side effects.

5. To speculate about past actions (May + have + past participle)

  • She is late. I think she may have missed the bus again.
  • It may have already been torn before you bought it.
  • What was that? It may have been the neighbor's dog outside the window.

6. To express well wishes

  • May you both live a long and happy life together!
  • May the New Year bring you love and happiness!
  • May all your wishes come true!
  • May the odds be ever in your favor!
  • May the Force be with you! :)

As you can see from all the creative examples provided, "might" is only used in one situation: to express future possibility when the event is not very likely to occur. You may want to view "might" as a negative word, unless you are using it to speculate about a bad situation, in which case, it's good. (The vet said my dog might need to wear a cone on his head if he doesn't stop scratching his ear.)

Although you may understand these words and how to use them, let's practice so you don't misspeak the next time you ask permission!

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