what is the difference between the following in terms of meaning (potentiality/permission)

  1. may go
  2. may be going
  3. may have gone

is it valid to say that 'may go' has greater certainty than 'may have gone' because of the certainty of present simple tense ? How do i then explain the difference between 2 and 3?

  • 3
    1 and 2 refer to a future possibility, 3 to the possibility that it has already happened (they have gone).
    – Kate Bunting
    Oct 17, 2017 at 13:56
  • There are a few points missing there, Kate. See my answer. Apr 3, 2021 at 15:46

2 Answers 2


May as permission can only be stated in the present. In all other cases, it refers to potentiality.

  1. Permission or potentiality

As permission:

  • May I go?
  • Yes, you may go.

As potentiality:

I may go to the party. It all depends on how I feel.

  1. Potentiality (present or future)


He may be going there right now.


He may be going with us to the party tomorrow.

  1. Potentiality (past)

I didn't see her in the office. She may have gone to meet a client.


"May" is the modal auxiliary of present possibility. Infinitival verb after it is used in bare form without 'to'. In the examples there are the uses of an infinitive, a continuous infinitive and a perfect infinitive; hence the variations of meaning. Admitted that infinitives are tenseless but with modals ( say, 'may' as herein) and change of types they capture the aspects of happenings. Kate Bunting rightly noted the aspect of possibilities. However I am more inclined to say them all as present possibilities.


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