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I have some doubts as to whether the sentence of the title is correct. The direct speech reads:

She says, "he may have missed his train."

In my opinion the indirect speech has to be:

She said he might have missed his train.

What troubles me there is the fact that we often use might have + -ed form to express criticism or disapproval and that doesn't match the statement of the reported (italizised) clause there. The reported clause expresses a weak possibility, by no means criticism or disapproval, though.

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    I don't see it makes any difference in some contexts. If it's still a matter of ongoing uncertainty, it might just as well be presented as Her exact words were "He might have missed it" reported later as She said he may have missed it. But I find that version of the reported speech far less natural if we now know perfectly well whether he missed it or not (either way, referring to the prior uncertain state using may is just awkward). Oct 3, 2023 at 21:16
  • Hence, you don't have any problem with using "he might have missed his train" in both the sentences - direct and indirect speech - in regard to criticism and disapproval, right? To be more precise, 'She says, "he might have missed his train." ' and 'She said he might have missed his train' are both fine?
    – philphil
    Oct 3, 2023 at 22:33
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    Yes, but whereas he might have missed his train could in principle be an observation about a situation last year (where he might have, but in fact didn't miss it), he may have missed it is only really likely for a recent / ongoing situation of currently unknown outcome. Oct 4, 2023 at 0:11

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The general rule, which I expect you already know, is that with indirect speech, verb forms get shifted to their past form. Also you seem to know that "might" is the past form of "may" in contexts like unreal conditionals. So it makes sense that "might" would be the only correct choice in indirect speech as well.

However, this isn't true here for two reasons.

The first reason is that indirect speech doesn't require shifting verbs to their past form, so leaving it as "may" is acceptable. However, leaving it in the same tense can mean that the original thing stated is still true now.

The second reason is that "may/might" doesn't work the same in indirect speech as it does in unreal conditionals. It's correct and natural to use "may" in indirect speech about the past without implying it's still true now. Here's a context where the original speech clearly happened far in the past:

Lawyer: Did you speak to Ms. Walters on the evening of June 14, 2018?
Witness: Yes, I did.
Lawyer: What did she say?
Witness: I asked her why Simon wasn't there and she said that he may have missed his train.
Lawyer: What were her exact words? Witness: Ms. Walters said, "He may have missed his train."

It's only "may" that behaves differently in indirect speech than in unreal conditionals. "Will" and "can" behave the same in both contexts and have to be changed to "would" and "could" when using indirect speech about things that are no longer true. I don't know why "may" is different in this respect, so hopefully someone else can add this in another answer.

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  • Can you give sources how modal verbs change in indirect speech? I was taught that will -> would, can -> could, may -> might. And of course backshifting is not always necessary. learn-english-grammer-online.blogspot.com/2015/11/…
    – Kyamond
    Oct 4, 2023 at 9:33
  • @Kjaamond Good question. Unfortunately, my only reference here is my native speaking ability. I cannot find any reliable references that agree with me, nor any examples of "said that he may" that are backshifted. Doesn't mean I'm wrong, but it does mean it's worth examining more closely, so it was a good choice to ask your other question. I answered there, and am keen to see what other native speakers think.
    – gotube
    Oct 4, 2023 at 23:00

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