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I came across this interesting question:

Would have done

I know that there are already other discussions about it. But, as you know, a different context often changes a meaning of a sentence,.. and I'm struggling on MIGHT/WOULD one more time.

I wondered whether the modal "might" can have the same meaning as "would" in the following sentences:

Lyn might have been sending texts consecutively for 15 minutes.

We saw a police helicopter overhead yesterday morning.
Really? They might have been looking for those bank robbers.
[please see the article]

I'm not sure about the first one because "might" makes me think only of something Sir Alex Ferguson doesn't know, but he thinks possible, whereas "Would" makes me think that the Lyn's work (sending text) had been arranged before. Therefore Sir Ferguson expected Lyn to do that. What do you think about it?

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SHORT ANSWER:
Might cannot be substituted for would because they express different degrees of ‘modal’ certainty.

LONG ANSWER:

  1. May/might and will/would, like other modal verbs, have a variety of meanings, classified by linguists as deontic (having to do with obligation), epistemic (having to do with inference) and dynamic (having to do with action and intention).

    But throughout these shifts in meaning, may/might and will/would exhibit a consistent contrast in modal certainty. Here are some present-tense examples.

    • May always signifies a possible but not certain event.

      DEONTIC: You may go to the lecture. = I permit you to go the lecture (but I do not require that you do so).
      EPISTEMIC: That may be Kevin at the door. = It is possible that that is Kevin at the door (but it may be someone else).
      DYNAMIC: I may go to London tomorrow. = I am considering going to London tomorrow (but I may decide not to.

    • Will, on the other hand, always signifies necessity.

      DEONTIC: You will go to the lecture. = I require you to go to the lecture, no ifs ands or buts.
      EPISTEMIC: That will be Kevin at the door. = It is Kevin at the door, no question about it.
      DYNAMIC: I will go to London tomorrow. = I have a firm intention of going to London tomorrow.

    When modal verbs are cast in the past tense, the range of readings becomes more complex, because the past-tense forms may signify actual past tense, or present ‘tentativity’, or present counterfactuality. Combining the past-tense form with a perfect construction adds yet another layer of complexity: the perfect construction may be either a true modal perfect or a ‘sham’ perfect in which the have + Pa·Ppl is secondary tense marker which resolves the ambiguous time reference of a past-form modal. But the contrast between possibility and necessity is maintained throughout these shifts.

  2. In your original examples the contexts make it clear that the two would have beens employ epistemic wills cast as indicatives. The first has a true modal perfect, while the second employs the perfect as a secondary tense marker.

    At home I locked myself in. Jason, my lawyer and Lyn sent texts simultaneously at the point the announcement was made. Lyn would have been sending texts consecutively for 15 minutes. ... That is, I was certain that Lyn had been sending those texts.

    A: We saw a police helicopter overhead yesterday morning.
    B: Really? They would have been looking for those bank robbers. ... That is, I am certain that they were looking for the bank robbers.

    In either case, replacing would with might would change the meaning by downgrading the sense of certainty from necessity to possibility.

    At home I locked myself in. Jason, my lawyer and Lyn sent texts simultaneously at the point the announcement was made. Lyn might have been sending texts consecutively for 15 minutes. ... That is, I thought it possible that Lyn had been sending those texts.

    A: We saw a police helicopter overhead yesterday morning.
    B: Really? They might have been looking for those bank robbers. ... That is, I think it possible that they were looking for the bank robbers.

  • Thank you StoneyB. Your answer is clear and very useful. I know it is a tricky subject for an ESL. – jeysmith Sep 1 '14 at 17:29
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    @jeysmith It is a tricky subject for native speakers as well! – StoneyB Sep 1 '14 at 17:33
  • This is awesome! Your answer contains lots of nutrition for me to digest. It involves some of my unclear understanding of modal verbs. In my opionion, the 'texts' example involves a backshifted 'will have been...' while the 'bank' example is equivalent of 'They will have been looking for those...', so how can I distinguish which is a true modal perfect and which is 'sham'? @StoneyB – Kinzle B Sep 2 '14 at 14:32
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    @KinzleB Context. It always comes down to context: what are people talking about? What does it make sense for it mean in that context? – StoneyB Sep 2 '14 at 14:46
  • I see. I paid too much attention to the grammar only. Thank you! @StoneyB – Kinzle B Sep 2 '14 at 14:54
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I think one uses MIGHT to express ability and probable action and WOULD to expresses a train of thought/action and definate/sure action. For eg:-

I would have done the same thing if I were here. 
I would have gone to the supermarket if I had the time. 

Might on the other hand is used to express probablity but not a sure action.

I might have misplaced your card. 
I might call her. (I may or may not call her.) 
I might have a few coins. 
  • I don't think I've exactly understood what you meant. And I don't know the extent to which your answer has to do with the article I linked above and my question. – jeysmith Sep 1 '14 at 14:25

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