PERSPECTIVE: STOP THEM BOTH – political and psychological idioms that lead to confusion ?!!

By Stephen Hugh-Jones

Forwarded by Lazy Daisy

No one still imagines my fellow Britons to know their own history. But surely they must know their own language? They don’t. And their ignorance is infecting others who use it.

First — it’s too rich to miss — the history. Last year, a Cardiff University lecturer asked his new economics students to name the British commander at Waterloo. One in six knew. Just one in nine could name any 19th-century British prime minister. Nor are the students alone. The once-grand London Times recently wrote that the House of Commons was “destroyed” by German bombs in 1941. Hit, yes. But destroyed? My eye. Too bad the Times didn’t use its.

As for language, the less said the better, maybe. But was I to sit silent when I read an Indian newspaper’s report that a state minister “has made an offer that Don Corleone may have found difficult to refuse”? Sorry, my friends, but no. Godfather Corleone no doubt had political pals in New York, but not, even in fiction, in Calcutta. For may have read might have.

Why? The short answer is “just because”. A longer one starts with a look at may have. We use may to express present uncertainty about ongoing events: he may be at home. Perhaps he is, perhaps he isn’t, both are possible but we aren’t sure which is true. It’s logical to use may have for present uncertainty about past ones: he may have been at home yesterday. “Possible”, of course, implies “as far as we know”; his wife and the Almighty doubtless know the truth, but we don’t.

There’s no possibility, however, that Don Corleone found it hard to refuse any offer from Calcutta, no uncertainty about it: as we all know, he never got one. But suppose he had: the Howrah bridge, say, in return for the Brooklyn one. If offered that deal, he indeed might have found it hard to refuse. Might have, sic. Those words imply that if A had happened, then B might have — but in fact A didn’t, so B couldn’t. Some sequence of events was possible, but it didn’t happen, and we know it didn’t. That’s where to use might have.

The two usages are wholly distinct. Yet you can find may have for might have all over the British media. And their error is plainly catching on elsewhere.

Curiously, a similar error, but the other way round, also is common: might (or, less often, might have) instead of may (or may have) in such phrases as he might be clever, but he’s no genius. That is an odd but wholly acceptable way of saying although he is clever, nonetheless…. Acceptable, that is, provided you use may, not might (unless, of course, you’re reporting what someone said: in that case, the standard rules turn the original he may be clever, but… into the columnist wrote (eg) that he might be clever, but…).

Yet often — notably in sports reports — you’ll find phrases like Tendulkar might be a great batsman, but…. That might is flatly wrong. Don’t ask me why may is OK there even when there’s no uncertainty: Tendulkar is a great batsman, period, and we all know it. But English is often odd. And things may not be so certain: he may (I don’t know) be clever, but (I’m sure) he’s no genius.

Strangely, this error runs against the one usage where may and might are equally acceptable. He may have gone home means it’s possible, but you aren’t sure. He might have suggests greater doubt: it’s possible, but you suspect not. That usage makes the phrase about Tendulkar look even odder; it seems to imply real doubt about his skills, the very opposite of what the sports journalist intends. Yet might be… but is spreading from its British base, just as the erroneous may have is. They should both be stopped.

I don’t expect that: today’s error easily becomes tomorrow’s idiom. But why invent idioms that lead to confusion?


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