Word Choice – May/Might and Can/Could

BizWritingTip reader: “Do you have anything on ‘may’ and ‘might’? I think there are some parallels with ‘can’ and ‘could.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: “May” and “might” imply permission or possibility. “Might” is also the past tense of “may.”

Examples

The report may be accurate. (Possibility)

You may call me tomorrow to set up an appointment. (Permission)

He said he might have been able to finish the report yesterday (possibility), but he did not have the figures.

There are two other occasions you could use “might.” First, use it when you want to show diminished possibility.

Examples

We might go to the conference. (The likelihood seems less than if you had written: “We may go to the conference.”)

Second, use it when you want to imply a high degree of politeness.

Examples

May I answer your question? (Polite)

Might I answer your question? (Very formal — not recommended in most business correspondence)

“Can” and “could” denote ability or power to do something. “Could” is the past tense of “can.”

Examples

Can you please send me the figures today? (Do you have the ability to do this?)

Could you please send me the figures today? (This is also an option, but it is not as forceful as the “can” sentence.)*

The supervisor could have changed the schedule if she had wanted to. (Power in the past)

When I was younger, I could hit my ball right onto the green. (Past ability)

*I know some readers are now going to ask what is wrong with saying:“Would you please send me the figures today?” My answer is nothing.

Could you = somewhat polite
Would you = polite
Might you = extremely polite (formal)

Your choice.

 

 

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