Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

There was a big advertisement at the back of last week's Times Literary Supplement inviting applications for visiting fellowships at the Beinecke Library at Yale, It was pleasing to note that there was no application form and `no special application process'.

Then I came across this sentence: `Applicants, who may not be degree candidates, are asked to submit a resume and a brief research proposal.' Fair enough, but what is the force of the word may? Does it mean they must not be degree candidates or that they need not be degree candidates? We are talking modals auxiliaries here.

Modals (can, may, might, must and so on) have historically always been in a mess, tending to shift one place along in their semantic slots. Must, for example, used to be the past tense of mote, an obsolete word originally meaning may. The story is all fairly complicated, or at least detailed, and of little general interest.

What tends to annoy people today is may being used where they want might, for example: `If it hadn't been for the busted alibi I may have been acquitted. …

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