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'Might have been'

Hello, I'd like to know how to describe 'might have been' as a part of speech. I think it is modal verb + past infinitive, but is there a more efficient or formal way to describe it? My related question is whether it encompasses two different possibilities, i.e. i) something that had a low possibility of happening, and ii) something that might have happened, but did not. To give an example, 'No one is going to catch me saying that I intended to build a Stone Age house as it really had been, but only as it might have been'. Could I understand this to mean, i) the Stone Age house has a low possibility of being one that ever existed, and perhaps also ii) the Stone Age house is one that existed as a possibility at the time, even if it was never built? Apologies for any self-inflicted confusions here!

Best Answer

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    Accepted Answer

    Sam, might have been is a FORM, not a PART OF SPEECH.

    Yes, might is best described as a MODAL AUXILIARY VERB or, more simply, a MODAL VERB.
    This is what could be termed a PART OF SPEECH, though I prefer the term WORD CLASS.

    It's debatable whether may and might should be seen as two Modal Verbs or two FORMS (PRESENT AND PAST) of the same verb. Either way, might have been is a PERFECT FORM.

    Personally, I tend to think of might have been as a MODAL PAST PERFECT of be.
    An important book on the English Verb by FR Palmer uses the term SECONDARY rather than MODAL.
    From this point of view
    PRIMARY had been
    corresponds to
    SECONDARY might have been/could have been/would have been/should have been.
    Had been is unquestionably PAST PERFECT, so I prefer to think of might have been etc as also PAST PERFECT, but there's clearly a contrary argument which does not recognise it as a PAST form.

    In my speech and for many other speakers — though perhaps not for everybody

    • may have been means 'was perhaps, I don't know but it's a possibility'
    • might have been can have at least these meanings:
      —1. 'was perhaps, I'm not really sure'
      —2. 'had been previously perhaps, I'm not really sure'
      —3. 'wasn't, as it happens, but if conditions had been different could have been'
      —4. 'hadn't been previously, as it happens, but if conditions had been different could have been'
      Some speakers, not me, can use may have been for meaning [3].

    My meaning [1] would support 'I don't really know what Stone Age houses were like, but this is a possibility'.
    My meaning [3] would support 'If there had been Stone Age houses, they would have been like this'.

    As with modal verbs in general, the modality — in this case POSSIBILITY (technically epistemic modality) — may be attached to different aspects of the proposition.

    • PRESENT JUDGEMENT OF POSSIBILITY ABOUT THE PAST — e.g._ may have been, might have been, will have been, would have been_
      This would cover your meaning (i) — a present judgement that it's possible, though dubious, that a Stone Age house like this existed

    • JUDGEMENT OF POSSIBILITY AT THE TIME (IN THE PAST) — e.g. might have been, could have been, would have been, should have been but not_ may have been, can have been, will have been, shall have been_
      This would cover your meaning (ii) — judgement that this represents a possible design for a house in the Stone Age.


  • David, this is wonderfully clear, thank you. Your clarification relating to your own use is very helpful in distinguishing between possible meanings. The two following categories 'present judgement of possibility about the past' and 'judgement of possibility at the time (in the past)' seem at first sight to provide the technical distinction that I have been failing to articulate. I would be interested to read more about epistemic modality; do let me know if you have a recommendation for someone with an interest in the area but no formal linguistic expertise. Many thanks again.

  • In defence of calling might a PAST form, like to argue from REPORTED SPEECH

    PRESENT SPEECH 'NOW' EVENT — I say it is
    PRESENT SPEECH 'THEN' EVENT — I say it was
    PAST SPEECH 'NOW' EVENT — I said it was
    PAST SPEECH 'THEN' EVENT — I said it had been

    With added MODALITY

    PRESENT SPEECH 'NOW' EVENT — I say it may/can/will be
    PRESENT SPEECH 'THEN' EVENT — I say it may/can/will have been
    PAST SPEECH 'NOW' EVENT — I said it might/could/would be
    PAST SPEECH 'THEN' EVENT — I said it might/could/would have been

    I like to think of three TIMES
    1. NOW
    But there are two, not three TENSES in English: PRESENT and PAST

    So I think of these three times as
    1. PRESENT
    2. PAST
    3. PAST + PAST
    with a sort of formula PAST + PAST = PAST PERFECT

    The standard use of PERFECT forms is UP TO NOW NOW and UP TO THEN.

    I've seen her this week
    I saw her on Monday

    but not usually
    I've seen her on Monday

    Similarly, we use PAST PERFECT for INDEFINITE TIME
    I had seen her that week
    I had seen her on Monday

    I said it had been
    I said it might/could/would have been
    I had seen her on Monday,
    the auxiliary have is used to signal PAST TIME.
    This is in contrast to the way we normally signal PAST TIME, namely with PAST TENSE forms

    It's clear that we use the auxiliary have to signal PAST TIME also with PRESENT TENSE modal forms.
    He may/must/will have seen her yesterday
    (for some reason, we don't like to use can have)
    He may not/mustn't/can't/won't have seen her yesterday

    I like to think that might have been etc use have to signal PAST TIME with PAST TENSE modal forms.
    You don't have to agree.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited February 2019

    Sam, I think the clearest works are by LR Palmer. Try to have a look at

    The English Verb
    It may be too detailed and/or too technical for what you want.

    Try also to look at

    I think I've read it, but I don't remember how accessible it is.

    He's written other books on the subject, but I think they're too theoretical as a starting point.

    Modality as understood by linguists today takes ideas from modal logic.

    In traditional logic we make inferences depending on whether PROPOSITIONS are TRUE or FALSE.
    In modal logic inferences are drawn depending on whether propositions are NECESSARY or POSSIBLE.

    Epistemic modality expresses JUDGEMENT of NECESSITY or POSSIBILITY.

    Deontic modality expressing NECESSITY or POSSIBILITY by COMPULSION/PERMISSION — using, for example must/mustn't or may/may not.

    Grammarians have also considered

    Alethic modality expressing what is NECESSARILY or POSSIBLY TRUE (or FALSE).
    (Grammars of English tend to lump this together with epistemic modality.
    It makes little or no difference to the grammar whether you look on
    That must be him or That can't be him

    Dynamic modality expressing what is expressing the NECESSARY or POSSIBLE consequence of how something is — for example ABILITY/INABILITY expressed by can/can't.

    There's a handy reference book The Cambridge Dictionary of English Grammar [] if you can find a copy in a library. (Definitely not a book you should consider buying.)

    I've glanced at some Wikipedia articles on modality. They seem to be sound, though not as clear as you'd hope.

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