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Saturday, October 12, 2013

I wish I may, I wish I might...

The problem
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 means
"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", 
it means
"They didn't survive. If they had had better care maybe they would have."

The solution
  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.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.