- For Teachers
"They even admitted that papers may have been lost or misfiled."
I was wondering if the speaker used it because he already thought of "may have been" as a past tense construction not the one that should have been shoved into the past tense?
yep, it could:) if it should I do not know but it definitely could;)
There is no 100% clear answer here because:
1. some speakers appear to make no distictinction between may and might.
2. even speakers who do make a distinction appear to be less precise sometimes in talking aboutpresent and past conjecture on past happening.
3. backshifting is not always obligatory in reported speech.
***** NOT A TEACHER *****
(1) As usual, you have asked an excellent question.
(2) Mr. John Honey wrote a 1997 book entitled Language is Power/ The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (London and Boston: Faber and Faber).
(3) He was severely criticized because he felt that there is correct English
and incorrect English. At that time in his country (the United Kingdom),
some people thought that he was wrong to insist that everyone learn
(4) One thing that upset him was the fact that many educated people
do not understand the difference between might have been and
may have been.
(5) I hope that I can explain his views correctly.
(6) Professor Honey says that (generally speaking) might have been =
something could have happened but it didn't!!!
(7) Professor Honey says that (generally speaking) may have been =
something could have happened, but we do not know yet!!!
(8) These are only my examples, so I cannot guarantee you that they are
TV announcer: Terrible news!!! There has just been an earthquake in city
X. 100, 000 people live there. We are getting reports that maybe
as many as 10,000 people may have died (but WE DO NOT KNOW YET).
TV announcer: There was a terrible airplane accident in country Y. When
the plane crashed, all of the 100 passengers were immediately taken
by ambulance to the hospital. Now they are all OK. Those 100 passengers
might have died if there had not been those ambulances waiting to rush
them to the hospital (but WE KNOW THAT THEY DID NOT DIE -- thanks to
those waiting ambulances).
(9) Based on my reading of Professor Honey's book, IF I am correct,
your sentence "They admitted that papers may have been lost" =
They do not yet know whether the papers have been lost or have not
been lost. They are now checking.
("They admitted that papers might have been lost" would =
The papers were NOT lost. For example: the papers were in a big
box. The custodian/janitor picked up the box to take it to the
trash container. But a good security guard told him: Don't touch those
papers!!! They are important!!! So we can say:
They admitted that papers might have been lost if the security guard
had not stopped the custodian. But the security guard DID stop the
custodian and the papers were NOT lost. Therefore, use "might have
I use the words in the way Professor Honey describes. However, I often see and hear such things as "Obama may have lost the election" (if certain voters had not been mobilised). To me that carries a nonsensical meaning (because Obama did not lose the election), but its use appears to becoming so common that perhaps I may have to accept that the language is changing.
The reported speech of Ostap's, "They even admitted that papers may have been lost or misfiled" complicates matters further.
Let us assume that their original words were "Papers may have been lost or misfiled," very roughly equivalent in meaning to, "It is possible that papers were/have been lost ...".
We can report this in two ways:
1. We can suggest that there is still, at the time of reporting the admission, the possibility of the loss of the papers:
They even admitted that it is possible that the papers were/have been lost ... .
They even admitted that the papers may have been lost.
2. We can report that there was, at the time of admission, the possibility of the loss of the papers. without suggesting that the possibility still (at the time of reporting) exists:
They even admitted that it was possible that the papers had been lost... .
They even admitted that the papers might have been lost... .