Can we use 'may' instead of 'might' in this case?

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Saturday. (Beginning perhaps amended.) I know it is madness to keep this journal but it gives me a strange thrill to do so; and only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. Let me state with a sob that today my L. was sun-bathing on the so-called “piazza,” but her mother and some other woman were around all the time. Of course, I might have sat there in the rocker and pretended to read. Playing safe, I kept away, for I was afraid that the horrible, insane, ridiculous and pitiful tremor that palsied me might prevent me from making my entre with any semblance of casualness.
(Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

The event time of ‘might prevent’ exists since the time of ‘kept away,’ and so ‘might have prevented’ would not be possible, I think. But, when we shift the reference time of ‘might prevent’ from the past to speech time (the present), we could say ‘may prevent’ instead of ‘might prevent,’ without breaking semantic order. (Of course, though ‘might prevent’ is able to denote present tense, I’m asking for the use of ‘may.) Is it possible or is there some problem?

Listenever

Posted 2013-05-06T08:54:18.107

Reputation: 25 811

1Actually, it seems to me that the "might prevent" phrase should be "might have prevented" because the sentence describes a completed event in the past using a hypothetical condition (what some people call a 3rd conditional?). Perhaps it's related to the way some people use "must" as a past tense in, eg, "I knew then that I must keep moving or I'd freeze to death, so I just kept pacing back and forth to keep my temperature above 90F". I'd use had to instead of must. I think it's typical of British English & 19th- & early-20th-century American English. I don't think it's wrong. – None – 2013-05-06T09:11:15.190

1After reading Brian's answer & rereading your question, it's clear to me that you've misunderstood the context of the passage. HH is writing about something that's over & done with. The reference time can't be shifted to the present. Only his writing can be considered "present" (ie, you're reading it as he's writing it, but it happened before he wrote it). – None – 2013-05-06T10:20:57.120

Answers

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This gives a nice run down of the subtle differences in the words and how they are used: may or might?

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.

In the text you reference, you could convert the latter sentence to say something like "it may prevent me..." to be in the present tense and that's just fine. You just can't so easily switch the first bold sentence, as most native speakers will think saying "I may have sat there..." indicates that the speaker is unsure of where they sat; even this, however, is not so glaring an error that it will be universally recognized as poor grammar. It might just be less clear.

If I were to restate the first bold sentence I would use "could" instead of "may": Of course, I could just sit there in the rocker and pretend to read.

Stating "I may just sit there" has a slightly different connotation, in that it implies that you are at least somewhat intending to sit where you said, rather than that you have considered it but decided against.

BrianH

Posted 2013-05-06T08:54:18.107

Reputation: 731

1I think you'd have to use "could have just sat there in the rocker and pretended to read" because the event is already over & requires the past tense, not the present, not even just the could form of the modal, which, in this context, is ungrammatical. – None – 2013-05-06T09:41:10.310

I thought the OP was asking how to restate the sentence to be in the present tense, but I might have misunderstood what was being asked. – BrianH – 2013-05-06T10:12:42.850

Ah. I see. The OP's discussion of the passage is confused & confusing (see my new comment). HH was writing in his journal about a past event, not about an ongoing event, so the OP's discussion is confused: his first sentence makes no sense at all. What you say is correct, but I don't think it answers the OP's Q because I don't think the OP actually asked a logical or well-formed Q. Nabokov's passage doesn't need changing to the present tense. It could be rewritten that way, I agree, but why? The OP thinks might prevent is grammatically incorrect; I disagree. I don't disagree with you. – None – 2013-05-06T10:30:22.730