I Wish I May, I wish I Might... Understand What These Writers Are Saying says Griselda Heppel

It so happens that May is a singularly appropriate month for the following grammar grumble. Call me a pedant - sorry, madam, no pedant available just now but more will be arriving shortly (cue howls of joyous mirth) - but Things Have Got to a Pretty Pass. No, really. 

Winston Churchill: a ban on prepositions
ending sentences was a practice up with
which he would not put.
It’s not about split infinitives. Nor about prepositions not being allowed at the ends of sentences (up with which Winston Churchill famously refused to put).
Nothing can be done with ‘she spoke to my friend and I’, I’m afraid, except to stand doggedly by me and try not to wince when others don’t. Thing is, all these infelicities (though the preposition rule is not an infelicity, Churchill was right there) don’t muddle meanings. You know exactly what people are saying, even if the grammar isn’t perfect. 

No. What flummoxed me a few days ago was this sub-heading in The Times, in a story about the Factor 8 blood scandal (in which large numbers of haemophiliac patients in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s were infected with Hepatitis and HIV, long after the doctors treating them knew the risk): 

Advice may have saved thousands 

Hurrah, I thought. So the death toll might have (see what I did there?) been much higher, but, luckily, a bit of correct, timely advice saved many, probably thousands of people. 

Er, no. From the general tenor of the story, the opposite was meant. Had correct, timely advice been given, thousands might have been saved, who did in fact die. 

This substitution of ‘may’ for ‘might’ in the past tense has been a growing phenomenon in recent years. My problem with it isn’t just a grammatical grouse, it’s actually about understanding what the writer intended to say. ‘May have' is open-ended (something possibly happened); 'might have' is definite (it didn’t). In this case the tragic story itself made clear what was meant. But on its own, I'd have taken the headline to mean the opposite. 

My question to Rose Wild at The Times (timesfeedback-sm@thetimes.co.uk) is: if 'may have' is the new 'might have', what do we have to replace 'may have'? How can one now express an unknown possibility in the past tense? 

I may have sneaked a chocolate biscuit
with my coffee (very possibly).
It amuses me that in light conversation people instinctively use the correct form. ‘I may have sneaked a chocolate biscuit with my coffee’ (tee hee I did); ‘Huh, I might have known’ (I didn’t know). Weird, then, how professional writers – journalists, editors, reporters – increasingly do not. If this extends to academics and historians, writing about subjects the reader doesn’t know about, there will be huge problems in understanding. ‘Mozart may have written more symphonies before dying so young’ implies that he did, and we are yet to discover them, not that his early death prevented him from doing so. 
W A Mozart:may/might he have written more?

 I’ll see if Rose Wild takes up my question. She may think it trivial but it isn’t. Meaning matters. We shouldn’t have to rely on context all the time to understand what the writer is trying to convey. Context won’t always be there and then it will be anybody’s guess.

Out now:

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel 

WINNER of a Wishing Shelf Award 




Peter Leyland said…
Thanks for the blog Griselda. As always you are ahead of the game and filling one of the many spaces that we now have on our site. I was so sorry to see that Sandra Horn has now departed from us.

The haemophiliac errors were a dreadful situation that had arisen due to doctors' ignoring of risks. I know you were using it to illustrate a grammatical point but it led me to read Caroline Wheeler's article which you flagged up under Factor 8 blood scandal. A disturbing account.

Medical mistakes!! I have recently been in receipt of a small one myself. Watch this space.
Griselda Heppel said…
Noooo not you too! I hope the mistake was easily and painlessly rectifiable.

Yes, I thought I'd encroach a little on to the gap at the end of the month though will be delighted if other writers appear. Sad that Sandra has now stopped, I agree.

Arguably it was tactless of me to use the tainted blood scandal to make a grammar point, but I genuinely had an uplift of false hope at that sub-heading, that thousands had been saved instead of the opposite. This is why I felt it mattered. How can we understand the full impact of disasters if journalists' loose grammar conveys the exact opposite of what they mean?

Thanks for reading and commenting!

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