Grammatically Speaking, Autumn 2004

by Richard Firsten
Posted September 2004

Dear Mr. Firsten:

Well, some time ago, I was watching a movie and one of the actors said, "You might have been killed!" With my ESOL wiring always turned on, I thought about that sentence and said to myself, "Hmm … you can also say, ‘You may have been killed!’" Then I went, "Oops! No, you can’t. That doesn’t work! But why not? What’s going on??" I haven’t been able to figure out what’s going on, so I hope you can tell me why suddenly what I’ve been teaching my students all these years ain’t necessarily so.

Thanks! By the way, I love your column and always have.

Kate Latham
Norman, Oklahoma, United States

Dear Ms. Latham:

Don’t be too hard on yourself. For all intents and purposes, you’ve been right all these years about may have and might have + a past participle. These two are examples of what we call the modal perfects, that is, the modal auxiliaries when they’re truly used in the past. In almost all circumstances, may have and might have have basically the same meaning and are interchangeable. To use your examples, She may have said that and She might have said that mean the same thing—that it’s possible she said that. The speaker is communicating that he or she doesn’t know one way or the other. What needs to be understood here is that these are examples of real possibility, a possibility you can expect to have happened.

Another kind of possibility, hypothetical possibility in the past, works a little differently, however. When you’re being hypothetical about a past event, meaning that you do know what happened but can conjecture on another outcome, only might have will work. When that actor said, "You might have been killed!" he wasn’t stating "It’s possible you were killed." That’s silly, of course, since obviously the person he was speaking to was very much alive. He was actually stating, "There was a possibility that you could have been killed"­--quite a different communication.

To sum up, let’s say that you can use may have and might have interchangeably when they both refer to a possibility in the past, the outcome of which you’re not sure about; you use only might have when the past outcome is known but you can conjecture about it using a hypothetical possibility.

Here are some more examples in the form of minidialogues to demonstrate this difference:

A: You know, Columbus’ crew almost ran out of supplies during their first voyage.
B: They [may not have realized] [might not have realized] how long the trip would take.
Meaning: It’s possible they didn’t realize ….. (We don’t know.)

A: You know, Ferdinand and Isabel almost decided not to fund Columbus’ voyage.
B: Really? Gee, in that case he might never have reached the Americas.
Meaning: It was possible that he could never have reached …. (We know, but ….)

I hope this has clarified things for you, Ms. Latham. Thanks for a great question!

Dear Richard,

This may not be appropriate for your column, but I’m sending it in anyway. I hope you can help me. Sometime back I was looking through an old grammar book that happened to mention an expression that we can use in place of can and could. Now the expression escapes me, and it’s been driving me crazy. Do you happen to know what that expression is?

Losing Sleep
Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Dear Losing Sleep,

Get ready for a good night’s rest! I think (at least, I hope) that the expression you’re thinking of is manage to, which communicates an achievement or an accomplished act. Even though it can be a replacement for can or be able to in certain situations in the present or general time (I manage to earn a comfortable living), it’s most often a replacement for this modal and semi-modal in the past (She managed to raise two kids on her own).

I hope that takes care of the insomnia! Thanks for writing in.

Dear Grammar Guru:

I along with some of my EFL colleagues am really starting to get confused about irregular nouns. Once and for all, is it hippopotami or hippopotamuses, cacti or cactuses? Is it the media is or the media are? And what about phenomena? This one throws all of us off! So what’s your take?

Jay Margolis
Haiifa, Israel

Dear Jay:

There once was strict adherence to the Latin plurals for the words you cited (hippopotami/cacti), but the trend is to regularize such words. Now it's acceptable to say hippopotamusesand cactuses.

As for media, the singular form is really medium, and the plural is media. In other words, television is a medium; the newspapers are a medium. However, so many educated people have joined you in your confusion that it’s now becoming acceptable to use media with a following verb in the third-person singular. I don’t like it, but that’s the trend.

Finally, there’s still no flexibility when it comes to phenomena. That’s the plural form (from Greek), and phenomenon is the singular.

The Guru has spoken!

Brain Teaser

Here’s the Brain Teaser from my summer 2004 column. Look at the following sentence: Marta works too hard, she does. Why did the speaker add … she does, and what do we call this?

The first correct reply was sent in by David Neyhart, in Barcelona, Spain. Here’s what David had to say:

I believe she does in the sentence Marta works too hard, she does is called a reinforcement tag. Speakers use it to emphasize their point of view or opinion about something. I think that this structure is rather colloquial also.

¡Bravo, Señor! You’ve given a very concise, neat explanation, David. Thanks very much!

And here’s the Brain Teaser for this column.

Just about everybody in the English-speaking world has heard the proverb Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. What exactly does be it ever so humble mean? And what kind of strange grammar is going on it that phrase?

Please e-mail your answers to grammspeaking@aol.com, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33179 USA

I’d love to hear from you!