Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

Even if you think you know the answer, you may not! If vs though and may vs might

As I’m sure you’re aware, our beloved English language is full of little subtleties that are a continual source of fascination and confusion.

Even if and even though

Consider, for example, the difference in meaning between these two sentences:

1.a.  Even if the weather seems fine, I’ll take an umbrella.
1.b.  Even though the weather seems fine, I’m going to take an umbrella.

The contrast in the future tenses gives you a bit of a clue here, but which sentence means that the weather currently is fine, and which refers to possible future meteorological conditions?

I’m sure you’ll have answered correctly that the weather is currently fine in 1.b., whereas this is a future possibility in 1.a. However, between ‘as if’ and ‘as though’, there is no such difference. For instance, ‘It looks as if the weather will be fine’ is more informal, and ‘It looks as though the weather will be fine’ is more formal, but the meaning is essentially the same.

May and might

Now consider these pairs of sentences (no extra clues this time!):

2.a.  You may be right.
2.b.  You might be right.
3.a.  England may have won the 2018 World Cup.
3.b.  England might have won the 2018 World Cup.

In pair 2, to which sentence could you add ‘well’ and to which could you add ‘– I really wouldn’t like to say’? In pair 3, which sentence is said by someone who spent mid July on another planet and doesn’t know what the actual result was, and which is said by someone who was on planet Earth and knows England didn’t win?

No doubt you answered ‘You may well be right’ and ‘You might be right – I really wouldn’t like to say’ for the first question, and ‘3.a. = doesn’t know’ and ‘3.b. = didn’t win’ for the second. The odd conclusion to be drawn from this is that in the present tense either ‘may’ or ‘might’ can be used with little fundamental difference in meaning – ‘might’ just adds a further degree of uncertainty – while in the past tense the difference is significant: to say that something may have happened indicates lack of knowledge, while to say that something might have happened indicates a possible event that didn’t in fact occur.

With this in mind, what’s wrong with the following sentence about the Second World War?

Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 meeting with Hitler may have prevented military action against Germany.

Presumably the historian knows that the meeting did not prevent war, and so the sentence should use ‘might’ instead of ‘may’. Although this example is fictitious, it is typical of the confusions between ‘may’ and ‘might’ that we often come across.

For another similar error, and other confusions caused by the English tongue, see the section on if vs whether in the blog post Making words mean what you want.

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Posted in Grammar, Proofreading/copy-editing