Mea Culpa: There Are Times When Might Is Right

Article excerpt

Clifford Baxter took his secrets with him to the grave. You will remember that he was the Enron executive who killed himself in Houston, Texas, last week. Investigators looking into the affairs of the bankrupt energy trading company would have loved to interview him, but they never managed it.

Or did they? The following was reported last Saturday: "A top executive of the bankrupt energy giant, Enron, who may have provided answers to America's worst financial scandal, was found dead in his Mercedes yesterday after apparently killing himself."

So it is possible, but not known for sure, that the investigators did speak to Mr Baxter before his death and he told them what they wanted to know? Actually, no. The author of this sentence meant to write that he "might have provided answers" - that such a possibility had once existed but had now been closed off.

This ghastly error - in the opening paragraph of the front-page lead - did not happen in The Independent, but in a rival broadsheet newspaper; the one, in fact, that most prides itself on respect for traditional virtues.

We rarely comment on such solecisms when they occur in other newspapers, but such a dramatic and disastrous instance of the language decaying before our very eyes must not go unremarked.

People have been confusing "may" (present tense) and "might" (past tense) for some years, and it is getting worse. However, this is the first time I have noticed the error actually reversing a writer's intended meaning. The whole point of the story was that Mr Baxter would never tell what he knew. The first sentence said it was possible that he already had.

I think the difficulty arises because with "may" and "might" we are dealing with differences both of time and of likelihood. Here is your cut-out- and-keep guide to a small corner of the picturesque but sometimes treacherous territory that is English auxiliary verbs.

He may provide answers - it is quite possible.

He might provide answers - but only if certain conditions are met. …