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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
© 2012 Klaus Bung
The meaning of "may"
The word "may" can have many meanings. One of them indicates that something is possible but you are not sure, the possibility-may: "I do not know what happened to my cat. She may be dead by now." Another meaning of "may" has to do with "permission": "May I go to the theatre tonight?", the permission-may. This essay explores the possibility-may. Just for fun, watch this:
my + a,
may + n,
2012-03-24 Klaus Bung: The meaning of "may"
Somebody asked: What is the meaning of "may" in "I may have gone".
"may" can have several different meanings. Here I will explain only one of them. May denotes a possibility and an uncertainty. It is in the middle of the following scale of likelihood.
definitely not ... perhaps yes (may be) ... definitely yes
"may" has a meaning similar to "it is possible". The exact meaning and explanation depends on the context, and whole books could be written about it. Much also depends on the intonation of the sentence, which I can not illustrate in writing.
(1) My father may be dead.
= It is possible that my father is dead, but it is also possible that he is not dead, I simply do not know. We must wait until we receive the police report of the accident.
When you use "may" with "I" (as in the question which started this essay), you are normally NOT uncertain about what you have done or not done. Therefore often the sentence with "may" then means that you refuse to answer, or that you are criticising the person who asked the question.
- Man says: "You are rich. Give them the money."
- Woman replies: "I may be rich, but what is that to you? Mind your own business. I will only tell the tax inspector how much money I earn. I do not discuss money with friends or strangers".
Here "I may be rich" means "yes, perhaps I am rich, but perhaps I am not rich. I will not admit anything. I will not say that I am rich, but I will also not say that I am poor; in fact, I MAY be poor. Why don't you shut up and stop asking me personal questions. Don't be impertinent."
A thousand more nice examples like this can be found. They become nice when you see them in context - because of the little story they tell, and perhaps I will, one day, collect some more of them.
(3) I may have gone.
This is the expression the student asked about.
This does not make much sense to me. I need context. Literally it means: "Perhaps I have gone, but perhaps I have not gone" (The facts are uncertain.)
When the facts are certain, you say either (4) or (5).
(4) I definitely have gone, I know it.
(5) I swear on my sainted mother's grave (Irish expression) that I have not gone; I definitely have not gone, I am absolutely sure of that.
If you can say neither (4) nor (5), then you say (3), which leaves open the possibility that you have gone, but not the certainty that you have gone.
As I said, this sentence does not make sense with "I", but it does make sense with "he" because when talking about someone else, you can be uncertain.
(6) He may have gone.
(6) and its variations make more sense when you add to them, as in (7).
(7) I may have gone too far.
(7) makes more sense to me. If you criticise somebody so strongly that the other person gets offended and other people think that you should not have done this, they can say to you: "You have gone too far. He deserved a mild criticism but not criticism in such strong language."
Then perhaps you defend your actions. You have the following possibilities:
(8) Yes, I have gone too far. I was tired and irritated, and I had too much to drink. I will apologise to him.
Or you may say (9) = It is possible that you say (9), put a voice stress on the word MAY.
(9) I MAY have gone too far, but still I don't regret it, because the opinions of this chap (British English for US "guy") were so outrageously stupid that I just could not bear it any more. I had to put him in his place.
Here is a real example of "I may have gone too far", with full context, taken from the introduction to Anne Bronte's novel "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall"
"As the story of 'Agnes Grey' was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from the life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration, so, in the present work, I find myself censured for depicting con amore, with 'a morbid love of the coarse, if not of the brutal,' those scenes which, I will venture to say, have not been more painful for the most fastidious of my critics to read than they were for me to describe. *** I may have gone too far ***; in which case I shall be careful not to trouble myself or my readers in the same way again; *** but *** when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience."
Note that in this example too, the admission "I may have gone too far" is followed by "but", which withdraws the admission because the speaker or writer now justifies his actions, explains why he went as far as he did.