"May" is not possible in the past?



Do I always have to use might when talk about the past and may does not belong there?

I may beat him now / tomorrow.

I may might beat him a year ago.


Posted 2013-06-23T07:42:03.350

Reputation: 7 310



The past-tense forms of the modal auxiliaries can, may, shall and will are always used in sentences with past reference. But they are used in different ways. That is because these verbs have dual uses which present a special problem.

  1. Just like the past-tense forms of other verbs, they are used to represent present-tense forms 'backshifted' into the past:

     You are going to fight. I think     You were going to fight. I thought   
     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
     you can beat him.                ⇨ you could beat him.
     you may beat him.                ⇨ you might beat him.  
    ?you shall beat him.              ⇨ you should beat him. (this use of 'shall' is dying) 
     you will beat him.               ⇨ you would beat him.  
  2. But these auxiliaries, unlike ‘lexical’ verbs also employ their past-tense forms with present or future reference. This is particularly visible in so-called 'first conditional' constructions: non-past conditionals in which the condition is regarded as possible:

     If the fight is fair, I think      If the fight is fair, I think 
     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
     you can beat him.             AND  you could beat him.
     you may beat him.             AND  you might beat him.  
     you shall beat him.           AND  you should beat him.
     you will beat him.             ?   you would beat him. 
                                       (This one's a bit iffy; but it would certainly be acceptable
                                        in a context like "If the contests are fair, I think you
                                        would beat him sixty times out of a hundred.") 

    In many cases, the difference between 'present-reference/present-tense' and 'present-reference/past-tense' use is so slight that the simple past form may be used for either when the sentence is backshifted to past-reference—for instance, in a backshifted ‘first conditional’ (we might call it a ‘one-and-a-halfth conditional’):

    Back in '06 I thought that if the fight was fair you could / might / should / would beat him.

    In the case of higher-level conditionals, however—what are sometimes called counterfactual or irrealis conditionals, in which the condition is regarded as impossible—this does not suffice. These constructions must be strongly marked with a past-tense form.

    When an irrealis sentence has present reference, the so-called ‘second conditional’, this marking is accomplished by casting the verb into a past-tense form undifferentiated for person, what used to be called the past subjunctive:

    If the fight were fair, you could / might / should / would beat him.

    But now all the verb sequences have been cast into past-tense forms. How, then, do you backshift this sentence into past reference?

    The workaround which English has evolved is to mark both sequences with a HAVE + past participle construction. This marker is placed on the finite verb which heads each verb sequence if it is capable of taking it. But modal verbs are 'defective', they have no past participles with which this marker can realized; so the marker is moved to the next verb in the sequence:

    PRESENT: If the fight [  were  ] fair you [might    beat    ] him, but it’s not;
                          past ↓                 ↳   →
                        marker ↓                (oops!)  ↴ 
    PAST:    If the fight [had been] fair you [might have beaten] him; but it wasn’t.

The last sentence looks like a perfect construction, but it’s not. It's the form taken by a subjunctive past with past reference. You must be careful to distinguish this from such sentences as:

He may have won; I'm not sure and its past version
He might have won; I wasn't sure.

He may have been cheated; I'm not sure and its past version
He might have been cheated; I wasn't sure.

These are true perfect constructions, with current (past or present) reference, designating his current state of "championship" resulting from his past action winning or of "cheatedness" resulting from somebody's past action of cheating him. They are cast into infinitive form because they are headed by the modal MAY, indicating uncertainty. They are thus equivalent to:

It is possible that he has won ... and
It was possible that he had won.

It is possible that he has been cheated ... and
It was possible that he had been cheated.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-06-23T07:42:03.350

Reputation: 176 469

I’m wondering how many of these questions this guy can ask. They’re really all the same at the heart of it. – tchrist – 2013-06-23T23:34:31.913

@tchrist I know!! – Mari-Lou A – 2013-06-23T23:40:11.420

1@tchrist So far on ELL use of verbal constructions -- tenses (whatever you use that to mean), modals, aspects -- seems to be *the* most difficult matter for learners to grasp. And many of the questioners keep coming back to it, because every time you think you've got it pinned down you run into what appears to be a counterexample. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-23T23:48:51.207

Your answer is definitely thorough but too advanced to be fully appreciated. It requires some linguistics and I may come back to it later. For now I will read more English texts and rely on my intuition. – Graduate – 2013-06-24T23:45:12.847

@Graduate That's always sound practice, even if you fully grok the linguistics! Don't do what the grammarians tell you; do what the writers show you. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-24T23:54:40.973

2@Graduate Reviewing your question I see I missed something. "I might beat him a year ago" doesn't work. "I may beat him", even with "now", refers to a future beating, not a present one; so when you backshift into a past context, "I might", you need something that provides a "future-in-past" context: either something like "A year ago I said to myself that I might beat him", which provides an explicit past 'springboard' from which to jump forward, or something like "I might beat him the next day", which provides a future towards which you are jumping. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-25T00:06:30.240

As Mari-Lou A pointed it out in her answer, "Might + have + past participle" could be used exactly the same way like "May + have + past participle", meaning "It is possible that sth has occurred". Is it because "might" here is used as a tentative version of "may", not a past form of "might"? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-06-18T14:45:52.073

@ZhanlongZheng Yes. And in that case the past equivalent -for instance, if the statement is backshifted for indirect discourse - would have the same form. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-06-18T15:13:02.380

Reviewing your past answers benefits me a lot. I remember that half a year ago I could not fully understand all of these, but now I think I can think of modal-verbs the same way you do. Just one more Q: Could "would have + p.p." be used exactly the same way like "will have + p.p.", meaning "it is certain that sth has occurred"? e.g. A: Someone helped me a lot with modal-verbs — B: It would/will have been StoneyB. Are Both OK? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-06-18T15:27:16.360

@ZhanlongZheng Yes, exactly. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-06-18T15:51:21.253

Is this inferential usage of "would" only restricted to the verb be? I've never run across this usage being applied to other verbs. @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-07-25T14:47:58.677

@ZhanlongZheng "Ask Sarah where you can reach John; he will have left a phone number with her." – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-07-25T14:59:50.560

Yes, this is the ordinary usage of "will have done", but what I wondered is whether I can say "Ask Sarah where you can reach John; he would have left a phone number with her" with the same meaning. @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-07-25T15:11:13.687

1@ZhanlongZheng Sure. It just puts a little more pastness into what you're saying, gives thereby a little more sense of habituality. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-07-25T15:44:21.293

Thx. You mentioned "If the contests are fair, I think you would beat him sixty times out of a hundred." in your answer, but I'm wondering if you actually meant "If the contests were fair... " @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-07-25T15:47:48.663

@ZhanlongZheng No, at that point I'm talking about an 'open' present condition with a past-form modal, not an 'unreal' condition. That's one of the things that makes modals so tricky. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-07-25T15:53:34.713

In your "If the contests are fair, I think you would beat him sixty times out of a hundred.", I think the reason why would is there is that some condition is implicit: if you fought with him a hundred times, you would beat him sixty times. Is my understanding right? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-10-03T12:26:49.657

1@KinzleB That's the meaning of '60 times out of a hundred', yes; it's a sort of "covert" condition implied by the manner of expressing likelihood as a statistical percentage rather than a certainty. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-10-03T13:58:15.520


  • Might + have + past participle

    to express an action that didn't happen in the past. May is not used in this way.

If I had been as fit as I am today, I might have beaten him a year ago.

Another example:

A: (in the car) Careful! There's a cat crossing the road!

B: Yes, don't worry. I saw it.

A: No, you didn't. You might have killed it!

B: But I didn't.


  • May + have + past participle
  • Might + have + past participle

to express possibility in the past. Both may and might can be used this way.


A: Where's Derek, he should be here by now?

B: He's always been a late riser, he may / might have missed the train.


A: I had to take the bus to work today.

B: Why? Don't you have a car?

A: Yes, but I couldn't find the keys anywhere.

B: You may / might have left them in the gym locker. You did the last time.

Mari-Lou A

Posted 2013-06-23T07:42:03.350

Reputation: 19 962

This is a good description, but I think this answer would be more complete if you also described how may is used in the past. – snailplane – 2013-06-23T13:35:27.493

1Also, this is changing in modern English. Many speakers find may acceptable in counterfactual sentences, and it'll probably be Standard English eventually. – snailplane – 2013-06-23T13:36:56.750

1@snailboat (no.1) You think so? Oh, all right then. If you insist. – Mari-Lou A – 2013-06-23T13:48:47.467


It feels more natural, but I don't think it is a strict requirement.

Counter-example in The Independent:

He may have been coached, but was Sir David Nicholson ready for these Reservoir Dogs?

Nicolas Raoul

Posted 2013-06-23T07:42:03.350

Reputation: 1 286