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    cypriot77 is offline Newbie
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    Lightbulb "Might" + present infinitive for past use?

    Dear colleagues,

    I have come across a problem in an exercise I can't explain to my students. While completing a gapped exercise on modal verbs, we found the following sentence (the whole text is about 16th century explorers): "On a ship only some 35 metres long, it can't have been easy for the 80 or so crew to live comfortably. Exploration was part of war and rivalry with other nations, so these voyages MIGHT INVOLVE attacks on other ships and towns."

    Now, since the modal verb refers to a past activity, everyone thought that MIGHT HAVE INVOLVED would be a better option here. I have browsed through a number of grammar books and couldn't find any explanation for this. Might + present infinitive is only used to express present or future possibility.

    The only explanation I might (sic!) have, is that MIGHT INVOLVE refers to some general/regular possible acitivity in the past, while MIGHT HAVE INVOLVED would refer to individual situations.

    I would be grateful for any logical explanation to the problem.

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    Esgaleth is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: "Might" + present infinitive for past use?

    You may want to consult 'Practical English Usage':
    339.10 Another use of may/might: typical occurrences
    In scientific and academic language, may is often used to talk about typical occurrences - things that can happen in certain situations...
    With this meaning, might can be used to talk about the past.
    e.g. In those days, a man might be hanged for stealing a sheep.
    Michael Swan, 'Practical English Usage', OUP, 3d Ed., p.318

    Hope, it could help.

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    Default Re: "Might" + present infinitive for past use?

    Welcome the the forum, cypriot77.

    The first point to make is that the infinitive is not 'present'; it is the main verb that is tensed:

    I will try (in the future) to learn it.
    I am trying (in the present) to learn it.
    I tried (in the past) to learn it.

    We can use the so-called 'perfect' infinitive to indicate completion of an activity by/before a known time.

    I hope (in the present) to have learnt it by/before the end of this year.
    I hoped
    (in the past) to have learnt it by/before the end of last year.


    The system is rather complex with modals, each of which may convey a range of meanings. Sometimes the 'past-tense' form indicates past time (I can play the piano. / I could play the piano when I was nine.), but sometimes it indicates only a lesser degree of possibility (I can see you tomorrow, / I could see you tomorrow.) Each modal construction has therefore to be considered in its context.

    Exploration was part of war and rivalry with other nations, so these voyages MIGHT INVOLVE attacks on other ships and towns.

    If the crew were thinking 'These voyages may/might involve danger', then we can say:
    The crew were worried; the voyages might involve danger.
    Here we are using implied reported speech.

    If we are thinking now that there was a possibility of danger for the crew, then we can say:
    The voyages may/might have involved danger.

    A further complicator here is that some native speakers use might as the past/reality-distancing form of may; some see no difference between may and might; some do not use may at all. This makes it very difficult to give explanations of these modals that cover all situations.
    Please do not edit your question after it has received a response. Such editing can make the response hard for others to understand.


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