We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

(William Shakespeare)

Modal auxiliaries belong to the group of words which are very useful because they can help you to show politeness, which is usually a good first attempt to get what you want. (The American author Ambrose Bierce called politeness the most acceptable hypocrisy).

No, I am not going to tell you what your second attempt may be. We will rather learn how to ask for and express permission and how to express possibility.

may modals

Being Mr. Nice Guy

Asking other people for permission seems to be difficult. Do you remember your early childhood when you wanted to go to your friend's birthday party? You did not ask a clear question, because a positive answer seemed way out of reach. So you first heaped up arguments like everybody is going there or he begged me to come because the other guests are so boring. And then you hoped for the reply to be OK, in that case I think you will have to go.
But it never came, because you never learned how to ask properly. This will change here and now.

The formula May I ...? will do the trick. It is rather formal and official, but this helps to transport the idea of submission and makes the addressee look favourably upon you.

Might is another word you can use for the same purpose. There is a slight difference in meaning, though. It is even more submissive than may and includes the idea that your chances of getting what you asked for are low. So Might I have the salt, please? - asked at the breakfast table - shows that you know you will only get the salt if nobody else in the wider regional area displays similar interests and even the local zoos are sufficiently stocked. That's why May I ... is usually the best choice to ask permission.

Read and translate two examples from the (very polite) writer Jane Austen:

»I must not tell, may I, Elinor?« [Sense and Sensibility]

»May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?« [Pride and Prejudice]



Mission possible

The famous American actor Thomas Kreutzer is planning another sequel of his blockbuster Mission Possible.
Producer: "Do you think the audience will like it?"
German film fund manager: "They will."
Script writer: "They may."
Famous movie critic: "They might."
Thomas K.: "They must."
You: "No, not another one!"

As you can see, the same two words (may, might) can be used to express the concept of possibility. And again there is a slight difference in meaning. While the script writer probably sees a 50% chance, the critic is more sceptical. This is the little difference the word might brings.

That's all about possibilities. Mission accomplished.

Jump back to the modals table from here.