A caption* on the Globe's front page last month read, "The median on Blue Hill Avenue where the Silver Line [transit route] may have been placed."
A couple of readers were puzzled by that "may have been." "I hadn't realized that the Silver Line was missing," e-mailed David Devore of Newton. William F. Bell of Lenox, Mass., agreed: "The meaning is unclear unless you realize that what is meant is 'might have been placed."
I'm with them. For me, the verb there can only be might
, the past of may
. ("May have been" means there's a chance the line was once placed there; we know that isn't true.)
But the distinction seems to be evaporating. Just two days earlier, I had spotted the construction on the New York Times op-ed page
: "If dentists would just decide to withdraw the flossing directive, we may have enough additional spare time to learn Spanish." I could go with either "If dentists decide, we may," or "If dentists decided/would decide, we might," but as written it sounds wrong. This may/might
choice is not about levels of likelihood, just about sequence of tenses; normal English uses "She said she was
happy," not "she said she is
happy" (unless, some say, you intend to emphasize the latter verb).
And today the Globe's op-ed page
has, "I fought off the temptation to shoo the animal with a firm 'no!' or 'go to your bed!'’ -- commands that may have gotten results. " [But it never happened. So: "might
have gotten results."]
Officially, the Times is on my side, as Philip Corbett explained in a recent After Deadline post
A verb that is present tense in a direct quotation shifts to past tense in an indirect quotation after a past-tense verb: I am going to the store becomes He said he was going to the store, not He said he is going to the store. In such constructions, the future-tense “will” becomes “would” after a past-tense verb. In these cases, “would” is not acting as a conditional (He would go to the store if he needed something) but simply as the past-tense form of “will.”
Corbett calls this the "formal rule," but I don't think I learned it it as a formal usage; it's just the way everyone said it. So why the shift? It's another of those language mysteries. As I mentioned in a September Word column
, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage can't explain it, and doesn’t approve: 'We advise you to use might
in all contexts where the past tense is appropriate or where a hypothetical or highly unlikely situation is being referred to.'"
But a more recent discussion
at Language Log quotes the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language on the futility of resistance: "Conservative usage manuals tend to disapprove of [this] usage, but it is becoming increasingly common, and should probably be recognised as a variant within Standard English."
*It turned out the caption was wrong
; the rapid bus service it referred to was not officially part of the Silver Line. But that doesn't affect the grammar question.