He Wishes I May, I Wish I Might.

Headline from yesterday morning’s New York Times (fixed in the online edition, but with the original headline noted): “9/11 May Have Been Stopped but for High-Level Dysfunction, Ex-F.B.I. Agent Writes.”

Even as conspiracy theories go, this one is extreme. I’ve never heard anyone claim before that the twin towers may not have fallen after all—that they may possibly still be standing, even though absolutely everyone in authority is claiming certainty that they’re not.

The sub-editor, of course, meant to say “might,” not “may” (and the reporter, not guilty of the error, uses “might” correctly several times in the article). “may” indicates uncertainty in the present. “Might,” the past subjunctive, indicates a possibility in the past that we know, in the present, did not come to pass. Its equivalent in spoken colloquial language is “could have maybe.” “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ ”: might have been, not may. “It may have been” are uncertain words, not sad ones.

Except in very finicky forums, the English subjunctive is on the decline. Judging by my students’ papers, the past subjunctive is in even worse shape; a properly-used “might” is more rarity than rule.

When it comes to language, we are all descriptivists of a sort. (A “prescriptivist” merely describes the usage of a different set of people—a preferred set of writers today, or writers in the past or in another language such as Latin—rather than that of the average person today.) If words shift their meaning, at some point we must shift with them. If you’re trying to be clear to the average reader, rather than seeking academic status, you shouldn’t say “disinterested” when you mean “impartial” (as opposed to the word’s more common current meaning, namely “bored”).

Still, some words and usages are genuinely useful, and we should mourn their passing. When everyone but the (revised) New York Times uses “may” to mean “might,” it sometimes becomes genuinely hard to distinguish whether we know what happened and are trying on counterfactuals, or are genuinely uncertain. This might have been avoided if American high schools hadn’t given up on teaching grammar. But at this point, there may be nothing we can do. Maybe I should embrace “could have maybe” in student papers: a clunky construction, but at least one whose intended meaning is clear.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.