May, might: read, speak, hear, remember

There is the threat that in the new A2 Latin examination, candidates may be required not only to identify the tense of a subjunctive but also to state whether the sentence is in primary or historic sequence: which is unsettling news for us lesser mortals who ceased to use those terms a while ago, preferring to ask merely whether the statement is about the past, or not: is the subjunctive a may or a might?

Alas, the examiners may be right. I had already noticed that the may/might distinction was fraying at the edges. Educated colleagues were beginning to get this wrong in English.  And not long ago I heard the headmaster of a school being interviewed on the radio. He was asked,

“If you had known how exhausting this expedition was going to be, would you have prevented your pupils from taking part?”
“I may have.”

Kingsley Amis* quotes another example, less unthinking:

If Napoleon had been at his best on the day of Waterloo, the result of the battle may have been different.

Last week I heard an extempore prayer:

“Give us grace Lord, that we might use our talents…” etc.

Burchfield in his 1996 edition of Modern English Usage does not hesitate to say that such expressions are wrong. They are not preferences of wording, but confusions; and to wish them rectified is not pedantry but the desire to keep distinctions of language and preserve shades of meaning.

English-speaking children brought up in the Anglican tradition and attending church used to have the advantage about this, hearing things like:

  • Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light…
  • Grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations…
  • The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
  • For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

Professor George Steiner:
‘The Authorised Version and Luther’s bible carried in their wake a rich tradition of symbolic, allusive, and syntactic awareness. Absorbed in childhood, the Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran hymnal and psalmody, cannot but have marked a broad compass of mental life with their exact, stylised articulateness and music of thought. Habits of communication and schooling, moreover, sprang directly from the concentration of memory. So much was learned and known by heart – a term beautifully apposite to the organic, inward presentness of meaning and spoken being within the individual spirit. The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources, is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an after-culture.’
In Bluebeard’s Castle, Faber, 1971, pp.83-84


* Kingsley Amis, The King’s English, HarperCollins 1997, p.131