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may

1
[ mey ]
/ meɪ /
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auxiliary verb, present singular 1st person may,2nd may or (Archaic) may·est or mayst,3rd may;present plural may;past might.
(used to express possibility): It may rain.
(used to express opportunity or permission): You may enter.
(used to express contingency, especially in clauses indicating condition, concession, purpose, result, etc.): I may be wrong but I think you would be wise to go. Times may change but human nature stays the same.
(used to express wish or prayer): May you live to an old age.
Archaic. (used to express ability or power.)
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Compare might1.

Origin of may

1
before 900; Middle English mai 1st and 3rd person singular present indicative of mouen,Old English mæg (infinitive magan); cognate with German mögen

words often confused with may

See can1.

WORDS THAT MAY BE CONFUSED WITH may

1. can, may (see confusables note at can)2. may , might

Other definitions for may (2 of 3)

may2
[ mey ]
/ meɪ /

noun Archaic.
a maiden.

Origin of may

2
before 900; Middle English mai;Old English mæg

Other definitions for may (3 of 3)

May
[ mey ]
/ meɪ /

noun
verb (used without object)
(lowercase) to gather flowers in the spring: when we were maying.

Origin of May

before 1050; Middle English, Old English Maius<Latin, short for Maius mēnsis Maia's month
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022

MAY VS. MIGHT

What’s the difference between may and might?

May and might can both be used as auxiliary verbs (helping verbs) that express possibility, as in We may/might have some left—let me check.

Traditionally, might is considered a weaker form of may—meaning that it expresses a lower degree of possibility that something will happen. Some people might intend to use the two words this way, but in practical terms they are often interchangeable when used in this sense—they usually mean just about the same thing.

May and might can also both be used in the context of permission, often as what’s thought to be a more polite substitute for can, as in May/Might I use your restroom? In responses to such questions, it’s usually may that’s used, as in Yes, you may. Saying might in such responses is often meant to make fun of such a use of the word in a way that’s sarcastic or that introduces a condition, usually one that’s not serious, as in Yes, you might, if you knew the password.

May is sometimes used to express a wish, as in May you have success.

Might is sometimes used to express advisability, as in You might ask before you barge in, you know.

In its auxiliary verb sense, might can also be used as the past tense of may. It may seem strange to express possibility in the past tense (now that it is known whether or not something happened), but there are plenty of cases in which it makes sense to do it, such as when it’s still uncertain whether or not something could have happened, as in He might have had a chance to become CEO, but he decided to retire early or She might have come if you had actually invited her. Of course, the word may can also be used in the same way to indicate past tense (She may have come if you had actually invited her).

Here’s an example of may and might used correctly in a sentence.

Example: We might have been able to go today if it hadn’t rained, but in any case we may try to go again tomorrow.

Want to learn more? Read the full breakdown of the difference between may and might.

Quiz yourself on may vs. might!

Should may or might be used in the following sentence?

_____ you have a long and happy life!

MORE ABOUT MAY

What is May?

May is the fifth month of the year in the Gregorian calendar. It has 31 days and is between April and June.

In the Northern Hemisphere, May happens during the spring, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it happens during the autumn. In the Northern Hemisphere, the temperature generally rises throughout the month, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it generally lowers.

May is also often used as a given name, much like April, June, and August. It is typically a given name for women.

When lowercased, may is an auxiliary verb with several meanings. An auxiliary verb helps express grammatical tense, aspect, and mood. May can also indicate permission is requested or granted, as in May I have a cookie? May can also indicate possibility, as in It may rain today.

Might is the past tense form of the verb may.

Example: May is frustrating because it isn’t cold enough to be winter but it isn’t hot enough yet to be summer.

Where does May come from?

The first records of the noun May come from before 1050. It comes from the Latin Maius mēnsis, meaning “Maia’s month.” The first records of the verb may come from before 900. It ultimately comes from the Old English maeg.

Both the Greeks and Romans have a goddess named Maia. The Greek Maia is primarily associated with motherhood and nursing mothers, while the Roman Maia is the goddess of growth and maturing.

You may have heard that you shouldn’t use can to ask permission, as in Can I go outside to play? This rule has largely fallen out of fashion, however, except in the most formal writing. You may use can to ask permission.

Did you know ... ?

What are some words that share a root or word element with May

What are some words that often get used in discussing May?

How is May used in real life?

May is a very common word, as the name of a month and for a person and as a verb.

 

Try using May!

True or False? 

May is named after the Roman goddess of growth, Maia.

How to use may in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for may (1 of 5)

may1
/ (meɪ) /

verb past might (takes an infinitive without to or an implied infinitive used as an auxiliary)

Word Origin for may

Old English mæg, from magan: compare Old High German mag, Old Norse

usage for may

It was formerly considered correct to use may rather than can when referring to permission as in: you may use the laboratory for your experiments, but this use of may is now almost entirely restricted to polite questions such as: may I open the window? The use of may with if in constructions such as: your analysis may have been more more credible if … is generally regarded as incorrect, might being preferred: your analysis might have been more credible if

British Dictionary definitions for may (2 of 5)

may2
/ (meɪ) /

noun
an archaic word for maiden

Word Origin for may

Old English mæg; related to Old High German māg kinsman, Old Norse māgr a relative by marriage

British Dictionary definitions for may (3 of 5)

may3
/ (meɪ) /

noun
Also: may tree a Brit name for hawthorn
short for may blossom

Word Origin for may

C16: from the month of May, when it flowers

British Dictionary definitions for may (4 of 5)

May1
/ (meɪ) /

noun
the fifth month of the year, consisting of 31 days

Word Origin for May

from Old French, from Latin Maius, probably from Maia, Roman goddess, identified with the Greek goddess Maia

British Dictionary definitions for may (5 of 5)

May2
/ (meɪ) /

noun
Robert McCredie, Baron. born 1936, Australian biologist and ecologist
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Other Idioms and Phrases with may

may

see be that as it may; come what may; let the chips fall where they may; to whom it may concern.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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