Thursday, March 31, 2011

If I May, If I Might

If I may, I’d like to explore the infinitesimal difference between may and might. In this case, I don’t see a “wrong” way to use one word in place of the other so much as I harbor a curiosity about why there are two such words. I retrieved my enormous dictionary and found the following definitions. I’ve abbreviated them to the salient points.

May: be allowed to or capable of, be likely to (to some degree), or to be obliged to (in matters of contract or statute). For purposes of brevity, I am ignoring “may he reign in health for a century” uses and the completely irrelevant definitions.

Might: the past version of may, in bygone days, and something less likely to happen than what you may do. Again, I’m ignoring uses and parts of speech that range away from my point.

Consider this sentence: Don may be forced to fire Ted if he cannot resist the temptations of YouTube while at work. I’ve heard that he might seek counseling to curb his addiction.

The difference between may and might lies in the degree of likelihood. It seems Don has seriously considered firing Ted but the video-watching fool doesn’t sound ready to admit he’s got a problem. I may paint my house green and I might add purple trim. I’m much more likely to find a pleasing shade of vermilion than I am to combine it with aubergine. I certainly am capable of doing both (though I may not like living with the results).

I may stop writing before I beat you over the head with another example for fear you might choose not to return. Yikes!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Making Sense of Oxymorons: A Writing Prompt

I received one of those obnoxious chain mails filled with clip art and Comic Sans font in seven colors and eight sizes. I’d been forwarded this one in particular several times because it purports to contain oxymorons. Of course is contains nothing of the kind but I (mostly) appreciate that people think of me when they see jokes about the English language.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an oxymoron is a phrase that contradicts itself. I’ve most often heard “military intelligence” cited as an example but I find that to be unkind to the gents who actually do sneaky things for the armed forces and who often show some scary smarts.

I’ve been sitting here attempting to create an oxymoron of my own and for some reason I now want to open a coffee shop called The Speedy Turtle. I seem to recall reading an article about the fastest sloth as well. But I was having trouble thinking of a really good example.

Then I thought about the example given in my dictionary of “legal murder”, which took me in two directions: right back to military intelligence and to the Wild West and the idea of a deputized outlaw. Could you have a gentle bully or a terrifying bunny (Monty Python notwithstanding)?

And so I thought that might make an interesting writing exercise: pair two contradictory terms and write a story to explain how both apply to a character. I don’t expect you to post results here, of course, but if you do write something based on the idea I’d love a link. If you’ve got a good example of an oxymoron please do share.