May 03, 2005

Things may be more complex than they seemed at first

maydenison A while back (March 28th, in fact) I spent a little time examining the claim that the modal verb may was encroaching on the territory of modal might, and suggested that (insofar as this encroachment was actually going on, which wasn't entirely clear) it might have something to do with the perception that may is more informal than might.

Since then, Elizabeth Traugott has pointed me to David Denison's article "Counterfactual may have" (in Gerritsen & Stein, Internal and external factors in syntactic change, Mouton de Gruyter, 1992), which makes it clear that things are a whole boatload more complex than I'd first thought.  There probably isn't just one shift in usage going on; the shifts probably have different motivations; and different people probably are moving in different directions, in different constructions.

The larger lesson is that the details of linguistic variation -- what forms are available, with what meanings, by whom, in what settings, with what effects -- can be VERY hard to discern indeed.

So, is may expanding in use?  Many have claimed that things like If he'd have released the ball a second earlier..., he may have had a touchdown are evidence that it is.  But Denison suggests otherwise: in general, he sees a contraction of may, though with increased specialization -- expansion in just a few contexts (like the counterfactual).  He looks at the factors that might have favored the spread, a great many factors, but the bottom line is that there are tugs in different directions.  And for good reasons.  Let me speculate...

The alternation is between may (originally a present tense form) and might (originally a past tense form).  So we start with closeness (in time) with may versus distancing (in time) with might.  The concomitant of this difference that pretty much everybody has noticed is the greater tentativeness of might: further off in time is further off in certainty.

But there are other possibilities: greater subjectivity for may, greater objectivity for might (expressing belief in a possibility vs. reporting the possibility); or greater social closeness, more informality, for may, vs. greater social distance, more formality, for might.  There's more than one way to extend the present-past distinction metaphorically or metonymically.

Denison's 1992 article (primarily concerned with U.K. English) suspects that counterfactual may have might have spread from the U.S.  This is not an unreasonable idea.  Meanwhile, Denison has some evidence that some U.K. speakers consider may MORE formal (or standard or correct) than might, probably as a result of "corrections" of root may as a replacement for vernacular can, as in May/Can I have a cookie?

The landscape of variation we then see looks pretty lumpy, not unlike what we see with the famous (morpho)phonological variable (ING), where the same stuff bears very different social/discourse/personal meanings in different contexts.  Are you:  Competent?  Educated?  Cool and easy?  Southern?  Friendly?  Stupid?  Upper class?  Gay?  Distant?  Or what?

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 3, 2005 11:19 PM