"May" and "Might" in purpose clauses (was: "Re: The anaphora of 1 John 3:5 & 8 & the Subjunctive")

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Sat Oct 16 1999 - 08:14:28 EDT

Like so many of our questions about Greek grammar, this one has to do with
our understanding (or misunderstanding, as the case may be) of the target
language, in this case English. To save inordinately long reproduction of
the earlier thread: Jay's original question, if anyone needs to how what's
he's talking about, concerned the hINA + subjunctive clauses in two nearby
verses in 1 John


and why they are translated "that he might take away (vs. 5)" and "that he
might destroy (vs. 8) in some translations and "to take away" (vs. 5) and
"to destroy" in others. I responded that the use of these subjunctives
"may" and "might" with infinitives in "so that ... ", "in order that ..."
or "lest ..." (negative) formulations is obsolescent English that I
personally find little used except by people who have learned from
old-fashioned Greek and Latin textbooks for translating purpose clauses
into English. Jay wanted to know whether "might" implied some doubt, as if
in the above clauses it answered an implicit question ("might he NOT have
taken away sins, if he had NOT appeared?" or "might he NOT have destroyed
the works of the devil, if he had NOT appearead?"

At 10:44 AM -0500 10/15/99, Jay Adkins wrote:
>Again, thank you. I had not even considered the differences between
>written and spoken English in regard to this construction. This makes good
>sense to me and can easily agree, however, I am wondering though if there
>is still another possible purpose in using this type of phrasing. Since
>the dual purposes of Jesus' appearance in these verses could not be
>achieved unless He did appear, could the terms 'might' or 'may' simply be
>expressing this as the contingent aspect of the phrase? Not that there was
>any doubt the results would be achieved, but it was contingent on His
>appearance. Or am I really confused now? Even so, I could still
>understand that using these terms would still not be the best way to
>express it, as it is already implied.

I repeat that I do not believe ANY contingency is implied in "that he
might" in these phrases employed for translating a purpose clause with an
introductory verb in the past tense.

The distinctions between different usage of modal auxiliaries in English
have been eroding considerably over the decades. In my opinion your
confusion in this regard is a common one and is not unrelated to another
obsolescent usage of the auxiliary verbs "shall" and "will" to convey the
distinction between a strong volitional assertion and simple futurity. I
was taught as standard English grammar (half a century ago) that to express
simple futurity one uses "shall" in the first person, "will" in the second
and third persons: "I SHALL go" but "you WILL go" and "he/she/it will go"
BUT if one says "I WILL go" or "you SHALL go" or "he/she/it SHALL go" what
is expressed is firm intention--strong volition. It's quite clear that this
distinction that I was taught is essentially obsolete now, and my guess is
that it was already obsolescent when I was taught it as a child. We now use
"will" for all three persons as an auxiliary with the infinitive to express
purpose. A remnant of the archaic usage is in the form of the Ten
Commandments, where "You shall make no graven image" does not express what
you are going to do but what God INTENDS you to do.

Although I have considered reproducing the dictionary entires from
Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary on "may" and "can" (they are very
instructive, particularly about why usage of them is so confusing) but I
think it might be better to urge those who care enough about this issue to
go to the trouble to look up these auxiliaries in a dictionary of recent
vintage. At this point I'll limit my remarks to a final attempt to
distinguish the contingent usage of "may" and "might" from the usage in a
purpose construction. These examples come from Webster's Tenth Collegiate:

"I laugh that I may not weep." In this instance there can be no doubt that
the subordinate clause "that I may not weep" expresses the purpose for my
laughing, NOT the likelihood of my weeping. Is there a contingency
nevertheless implied? Perhaps so, but it is: "I may weep, if I do NOT
laugh" That is to say, in the purpose clause the contingency stated by
"may" is invoked: the possibility has become intention. So, "he appeared
that he might take away sins": theoretically he might or might not take
away sins, but since "he appeared" the contingency is actually closed: it
is a purpose construction.

On the other hand, "She'll do her duty, come what may" retains clear
contingency because it means "whatever comes" or "if anything you can name
comes"--in any and every contingence, "she'll do her duty." Could we
construct a comparable sentence--one that DOES retain contingency--with "he
may take away sins"? I don't think so. The key element is the introductory
"that"--an abbreviation of the less common "so that" or "in order that"
which delimits the subordinate clause to stating the precise purpose of the
action in the main clause and leaves open no alternative. There really is
no contingency in a purpose clause if the purpose clause is rightly

This contribution to the general confusion about modal auxiliaries was
brought to you by

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/

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