Susannah’s blog

Tenses matter in times of life and death

Confusion for me this morning on reading a newspaper headline about the coronavirus:

“China coronavirus cases might have been four times official figure”, according to a study in Hong Kong.

What? Are they saying that the Chinese have saved thousands of lives by some kind of intervention we haven’t heard about? That doesn’t seem to square with the information we’ve been getting from China.

The problem is the word “might”. It’s the wrong tense.

When you say something “might have happpened” the logical next statement is “but it didn’t”, as in a dialogue familiar to many of us:

Parent: “You shouldn’t run out into the road like that. You might have been killed.”

Child: “But I wasn’t”.

I leave you to imagine the rest.

Within a few minutes the Guardian, to their credit, had changed the headline to

“China coronavirus cases may have been four times official figure, says study”.

That’s more likely. We still don’t know the facts, but we have been given a theory that may or may not turn out to be true.

If you say someone “may have died of the virus”, you mean they’ve died, but we’re not sure of what. Whereas if you say someone “might have died of the virus”, you mean they came close but survived.

Tenses do matter in these days of life and death. Having spent years grumbling about people who say “may” when they mean “might”, I was upset by a newspaper using “might” when they meant “may”.

Luckily, the upset didn’t last long.

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