“She turned at the sound. It may have been a mouse, or it may have been a wolf.”
“Exhausted, he may have fallen asleep.”
“Had the bomb exploded, it may have killed her.”
There are two types of readers – those to whom the above sentences look fine, and those whom they frustrate no end. I’m firmly in the second camp. I just finished reading a Stephen Donaldson book, and while I like Donaldson’s writing, he’s clearly in the first – he uses “may” at every opportunity, and I’m not sure that he ever uses “might” in the past tense. It drives me crazy.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made for “may” in fiction – the presumption that we are in fact listening to a storyteller, who is making a present statement of fact. X may have been true – we, the current listener, still do not know the facts. We cannot say with certainly what was possible and what was not.
I have several objections to this approach.
- It’s disruptive. “May” necessarily draws the reader out of what may be a deep immersion in the story, reminds us that we’re just listening, and then tries to throw us right back in. Just when you’ve slid into the warm bath of belief, it’s a glass of ice water in your face. It’s counterproductive.
- It’s not necessary. In almost every case, you can say the same things with “might” as you can with “may”. The reverse is not true. Take the first sentence above. Does it matter whether it “may have been a mouse” or “might have been a mouse”? Not really, unless #3 below) we actually find out.
- It’s not always true. In fact, more often than not, either the narrator or even we the reader already KNOW the result or can deduce it. When the narrator says “One more blow and I may have died,” it’s not only untrue (presuming it’s not a story about resurrection), but it doesn’t even make sense. Logically, that’s two sentence fragments – ‘there was the possibility of one more blow’ and ‘I may have died. I’m not really sure; I don’t keep good records.’ They don’t connect.
- Sometimes, it’s just wrong. You can’t always use “may” instead of “might” in the past tense. Insisting on “may” is the foolish consistency that Emerson complained about.
In short, might may not make right, but it’s may is more likely to be wrong. And it’s annoying.