Tuesday, April 15, 2008

May might

I hope I never become one of those people who write
letters to the editor about missing apostrophes and the
misuse of the English language by teenage txters.
Language evolves all the time and we should let it do
so without getting too picky. I am no pedant but.

We all have our bĂȘtes, however—some more noirish
than others—and mine is the vanishing might. In
certain contexts might and may mean two clearly
different things, but in the past 20 years, for reasons
I can’t establish, other than sheer carelessness, may
has been steadily shoving might off the stage, to the
detriment of meaning and the confusion of the reader.

A headline in yesterday's New Zealand Herald illustrates
the point perfectly. It said "Detox centres may have
saved two men." In times past you would automatically
have taken this to mean that two men had been saved
and that possibly they could thank detox centres for that.
In fact, as the news report showed, the men had died
without ever going near a detox centre. The headline
was obviously supposed to convey the meaning that, had
they been sent to such places, they possibly would not
have died; in which case the correct way to say it was
"Detox centres might have saved two men."

But the distinction between may and might now seems
lost on many people; and the language in turn is losing a
useful shade of meaning.

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