He wishes I may, I wish I might.

Requiem for the past subjunctive.

Headline from this morning’s New York Times (fixed in the online edition, but with the original headline noted): “9/11 May Have Been Stopped but for High-Level Dysfunction, Ex-F.B.I. Agent Writes.”

Even as conspiracy theories go, this one is extreme. I’ve never heard anyone claim before that the twin towers may not have fallen after all—that they may possibly still be standing, even though absolutely everyone in authority is claiming certainty that they’re not.

The sub-editor, of course, meant to say “might,” not “may” (and the reporter, not guilty of the error, uses “might” correctly several times in the article).  As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, “may” indicates uncertainty in the present. “Might,” the past subjunctive, indicates a possibility in the past that we know, in the present, did not come to pass. Its equivalent in spoken colloquial language is “could have maybe.” “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ ”: might have been, not may. “It may have been” are uncertain words, not sad ones.

Except in very finicky forums, the English subjunctive is on the decline.  Judging by my students’ papers, the past subjunctive is in even worse shape; a properly-used “might” is more rarity than rule.

When it comes to language, we are all descriptivists of a sort. (A “prescriptivist” merely describes the usage of a different set of people—a preferred set of writers today, or writers in the past or in another language such as Latin—rather than that of the average person today.) If words shift their meaning, at some point we must shift with them. If you’re trying to be clear to the average reader, rather than seeking academic status, you shouldn’t say “disinterested” when you mean “impartial” (as opposed to the word’s more common current meaning, namely “bored”).

Still, some words and usages are genuinely useful, and we should mourn their passing. When everyone but the (revised) New York Times uses “may” to mean “might,” it sometimes becomes genuinely hard to distinguish whether we know what happened and are trying on counterfactuals, or are genuinely uncertain. This might have been avoided if American high schools hadn’t given up on teaching grammar. But at this point, there may be nothing we can do. Maybe I should embrace “could have maybe” in student papers: a clunky construction, but at least one whose intended meaning is clear.

Update: I seem to have missed Keith’s earlier post along the same lines. I think I’m becoming even less prescriptive than he is—which surprises me.


Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

3 thoughts on “He wishes I may, I wish I might.”

  1. The Apollo moon landings may never have taken place but for the need for a US propaganda win in the Cold War space race.

    Or so the flat earthers claim.

  2. If I may, I think “might” is not technically the subjunctive (which is a grammatical mood); in this case it’s the past tense of the auxiliary “may.” So “They might still be standing” means that in the past, there was a possibility that they would still be standing now, while “They may still be standing” means that there is now a possibility that they are still standing. But I don’t know the technical name for the tenses involved.

  3. I am old.
    You make a valid point BUT I’d like to focus on basic grammar and punctuation.

    Everyday I read blog posts (not so much here, granted) that DO NOT SCAN. Then I spend 10 seconds trying to determine where the writer made the mistakes(s). Often I just give up. If the writer doesn’t care enough to proofread his/her work, why should I bother trying to figure it out?

    We have this neat medium for communication. But sloppy writing (never mind sloppy thinking) rules!
    Like I said, I am old.

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