Today's Toronto Star had the following headline:
Good Samaritan law may have saved son, mom says
There is only one way to interpret this:
A Good Samaritan law exists
The mother's son is still alive
It is possible that it is thanks to this law that the son is still alive
In fact, on reading the article, it became clear that:
No such law exists (in this case protecting those who call emergency services about a drug overdose from themselves being charged with drug possession)
The son died
If such a law had existed, the son might have lived.
The headline made it sound like it was a good-news story when in fact it was anything but.
Do not confuse "may have" and "might have"
People often use "may have" when what they mean is "might have". If a condition (an "if-clause") is either implicit or stated, what you need is "might have".
If you say
"These people may have survived",
"It is possible these people have survived (but we don't know for sure)".
If you say
"With better care, these people might have survived",
"They didn't survive. If they had had better care maybe they would have."
If you are unsure whether to use "may" or "might", try recasting the sentence with "will" or "would".
If "would" conveys the meaning you want if you are expressing something certain, then "might" is the appropriate form for something less certain ("might" essentially means "would maybe").
So, to try this with the original headline:
"Good Samaritan law will have saved son" is clearly wrong
"Good Samaritan law would have saved son" makes more sense, but since we can't know for sure that it would have, "might" is the appropriate word to use.
Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.
Please use the buttons in the left-hand column to share this post on facebook or twitter, or email the link to a friend.
You can sign up to have your word of the week delivered directly to your inbox here.