May have vs. might have

In your post ‘May’ or ‘might’? you said that one could use "may have" or "might have" to talk about past event unless he knows it didn't occur. However, if one uses "might have" for an event that did occur it may seem as if the event didn't happen. So isn't it better to use "might have" only for situations that didn't happen?

Comments

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    This is what the web page says:

    But there is a distinction between may have and might have in certain contexts. If the truth of a situation is still not known at the time of speaking or writing, either of the two is acceptable:

    By the time you read this, he may have made his decision.

    I think that comment might have offended some people.

    If the event or situation referred to did not in fact occur, it's better to use might have:

    The draw against Italy might have been a turning point, but it didn't turn out like that.

    We don't usually use might have to talk about situations if we know that they happened. Sometimes — usually as a joke — we use might have to conceal what we know.

    QUESTION:Did you do this?
    ANSWER: I might have done.

    This answer has three possible meanings
    1. I don't know whether I did it or not.
    2. I refuse to tell you whether I did it.
    3. I haven't finished speaking. I didn't do it, but I might have done if ...

    That first meaning is important. The web page gives the example

    I think that comment might have offended some people.

    This is normal English, and the best way to express the meaning

    'Perhaps it offended some people. I don't know, but it's quite likely.'

    If you think it's possible but unlikely, it's better to use may have.

    But as the we page says, either may have or might have is acceptable.

    That second meaning is not important. It's more common in comedy plays than in real life.

    That third meaning can be clear when the sentence is finished, for example missing information is supplied.

    A :I'm glad you earned me about his wife's death. Without knowing that I might have said something tactless and hurtful
    B: Oh, I don 't think you would have
    A: Well, I might not have, but I'm glad I knew I had to be careful

    In sentences like this we can also use could have instead of might have.

  • But if I switch "may have" with "might have" in the example from the article:

    He may have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

    The listener might not know whether I used it in the first meaning or the third one.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    I think any listener would understand

    He may have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

    as meaning

    'Perhaps he visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg. I don't know'

    The main difference between may have and might have is that we only use might have when we know that something didn't happen.

    We don't say

    The draw against Italy may have been a turning point, but it didn't turn out like that.

    Occasionally some writer might publish a sentence with may have instead of might have for something that he or she writer knew didn't happen. But always some reader writes to complain that it's a grammar mistake.

  • The article states that:

    If the truth of a situation is still not known at the time of speaking or writing, either of the two is acceptable

    Hence, if I don't know the truth (e.g., I haven't asked him) both sentences have the same meaning. I.e., both
    He may/might have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.
    mean that it is possible that he had visited Italy before he settled in Nuremberg.

    But if I don't know the truth, the meaning of the second sentence changes. Therefore, the listener must know whether I know the truth or not in order to understand the sentence:
    He might have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    He may/might have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

    Without a stated IMPOSSIBLE CONDITION I would understand this to mean that speaker didn't know. Here's an example with an if-clause stating a condition:

    If he'd known about the celebrations in Rome and Venice, he might have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

    This works only with might have, not with may have:

    If he'd known about the celebrations in Rome and Venice, he may have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    I said

    Without a stated IMPOSSIBLE CONDITION I would understand this to mean that speaker didn't know.

    It's the meaning that matters — not necessarily the grammar of an if-clause. We could say

    He had to stay at home and look after his mother. Otherwise, he might have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    @yanivkim, you wrote

    Therefore, the listener must know whether I know the truth or not in order to understand the sentence:
    He might have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

    It isn't the listener's job to know. It's the speaker's job to make it clear.

    The speaker may show that he or she knows that the man didn't visit Italy by expressing the IMPOSSIBLE CONDITION. If the speaker doesn't do this, then the listener understands that he or she doesn't know. Communication is achieved through co-operation.

    If somebody tells me

    Napoleon might have won at Waterloo

    without expressing any condition, then I'm confused. The speaker (or writer) is being unco-operative.

    I know that Napoleon didn't win, and I know that the speaker (or writer) knows that Napoleon didn't win. So why did the speaker (or writer) pretend not to know? If he or she was thinking about some impossible condition such as if Blücher had been delayed, then why didn't he or she say so?

    I'm confused because the speaker (or writer) didn't co-operate.

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