I was reminded of a subtle grammar rule today, and it inadvertently sparked a whole line of strange thoughts. It’s a rule I often forget, and I hope that by writing this I will be able to internalize it. But, also, I had a thought about application that I wanted to share for the fun of it.
The difference between Might and May:
We use ‘may’ to say that something is possible, in fact, that it’s more possible than a circumstance in which ‘might’ is the correct term. Small difference.
The website, English Grammar Secrets, sheds some light on the difference, noting that we rarely speak this difference when talking normally:
We use ‘might’ to suggest a small possibility of something. Often we read that ‘might’ suggests a smaller possibility than ‘may.’ There is, in fact, little difference and ‘might’ is more usual than ‘may’ in spoken English.
I got to wondering what would happen if our spoken English language was keener on this subtle detail? How would that change the way we heard people’s responses? Would the press jump down politician’s throats for using the less committal ‘might’ instead of a slightly more stalwart ‘may’? How could this have ramifications for the way we as a society enable ourselves to read between the lines?
A few weeks ago, I heard an old professor of mine hypothesizing that the English language was rapidly heading down the path of shaking off grammar rules like apostrophes. After all, the possessive and un-gendered pronoun ‘their’ has already almost completely replaced ‘his or her’ in writing. And entirely in speech. The professor argued that that was potentially not a bad thing, it was only natural for any language to shift and transform for convenience’s sake.
Well, I suppose I agree. Language is arbitrary, and what use is it if not for convenience of communication?
But I have to wonder what other nuances we might (or may?) lose in the process of the slow English transformation. What have we already lost? It does appear that all the transformations I’ve considered so far tend toward the simplification of our language, spoken and written.
But I suppose I should never discount the ingrained human proficiency for subterfuge and misdirect. How will our language continue to grow in complexity even as we shrug some complications off? It’s hard to imagine English without the apostrophe, and I don’t (or dont) suppose it will happen in my lifetime, but at the same time most of us have already gotten used to the shorthand of texting language.
This is both a simplification and and complication of English rules. Shorthand is a form of simplifying, but I’ll never forget the response one of my teacher friends received from a high school girl about text punctuation. It went something like this: “You can’t use periods when texting,” she said. “Ever! That means you’re upset!”
There’s probably more truth to that for some than for others, (otherwise my dad is always angry. But he’s just finishing his damn sentences!) but I have noticed “punctuational flare” taking over for absent voice inflection in any sort of instant messaging method. It adds a world of complexity to interpret, and not just for angsty teens.
These are obviously free thoughts, and based on absolutely zero research other than causal observation (my favorite kind of research), but I don’t think these are somethings people consider everyday. Where is our language going, and is it all that bad or childish? It’s certainly not unnatural. As you can see with this entry, informal writing has become more stream of consciousness than ever before.
I wonder where that will end up taking us? I’d love to hear opinions, or denunciations if you’re a die hard English-grammar-as-it-was-taught-to-you fan, because I think as long as we change with our eyes open, we’re in good shape.