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Collins dictionary says you can only use might or could in this situation- when something didn't happen but you think it could have.

So, sentence 1 is right and sentence 2 is wrong.

  1. `If he hadn't hurt his ankle, he might/could have won the race'

  2. `If he hadn't hurt his ankle, he may have won the race'

Do people make that distinction?

2 Answers 2

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Might is the past form of may. Thus, it would be wrong to use may in the third conditional since your second sentence expresses a situation which is not 'real'.

In addition to Collins Dictionary, English Grammar in Use explains it (p.60) as well:

'We use might (not may) when the situation is not real'.

Please note the difference:

  • If we had a garden, we could (not can) have a cat.
  • If I hadn't been ill, I would have (not will have) gone to the party
  • If he hadn't hurt his ankle, he might (not may) have won the race.

The example sentences are taken from British Council Website

In short, yes, people make this distinction.

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  • It's not uncommon for journalists to use sentences like (2), but it always strikes me as glaringly wrong. Nov 16, 2022 at 16:48
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Correct: `If he hadn't hurt his ankle, he might/could have won the race' (NOT 'may have')

When we talk about the past, we use if + had... The sentence (If he... race) refers to the past. We can use 'might', not 'may'. 'Might' is the past form of 'may'.

`If he hadn't hurt his ankle, he could have won the race.' (he would have been able to win)

`If he hadn't hurt his ankle, he might have won the race.' (Perhaps he would have won)

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