& Another Thing

March 24th, 2017


Pedantry can be fun. I’ve always enjoyed it, even though I admit that the concerns of pedants are usually of no importance at all.  Split infinitives don’t matter , for instance, though I do dislike them. But there are occasions when pedants are right, and  a new common usage is wrong   – wrong because it makes something unclear, or less clear it could be or used to be.

I’m thinking of may and might.  They’re being abused.  Using them the old- fashioned way is clearly better than using them as people increasingly do now. Increasingly, may is used where might would be clearer, and where sometimes may is actually misleading. At the same time the word might is disappearing.

This is almost self evident.  Compare “If Hitler hadn’t shot himself in the bunker, he might still be alive”  to  “If Hitler hadn’t shot himself in the bunker he may still be alive”.  The word may suggests an open ended, on-going  possibility.  Here its use suggests that Hitler may still be alive, which is clearly wrong. What’s more, if we didn’t actually know that he is long dead, its use would be misleading as well. The word might, as used here with if, suggests a possibility that has been cut short by what actually happened.  To say might in this sentence is the only way to make one’s meaning clear.   

That’s why for once pedants are right.