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Here is the sentence from C. S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew:

Down and down they rushed, first through darkness and then through a mass of vague and whirling shapes which might have been almost anything.

As far as I know, might refers to the present and future, and might have refers to the past. This sentence is in the past, so I think that might would automatically refer to the same past moment, and might have would refer to the moment that was earlier.

Still, I can't understand the reason of using might have here because it's apparent that the characters' journey and the whirling shapes were at the same time.

Why is might have used here, and what would the meaning be if we used might?

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MODALPast have VERBPastPpl is the construction English uses to express a past-tense 'irrealis' (non-factual, hypothetical, unreal) situation corresponding to the present-tense irrealis construction MODALPast VERBInfinitive.

If this sentence were in the present tense, might would be used to express non-factuality:

They are rushing down and down ... through vague and whirling shapes which might be almost anything.

That in effect "uses up" the 'past' form of may, so if you want to move this into the past tense, you have to use what I call a 'sham perfect' of be as a tense marker:

They rushed down and down ... through vague and whirling shapes which might have been almost anything.

  • Several paragraphs below, there is this sentence: "The stone of which everything was built seemed to be red, but that might only be because of the curious light." Is this a real situation in the past, so we use the past form of may which is might? On the contrary, in my post, we have an unreal situation, so we should use might have. Am I right? – athlonusm Sep 8 '15 at 18:11
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    @athlonusm That's pretty much right -- it represents a backshifted "That may only be because &c". Note, however, that in PDE "That may be because ... " can also be expressed as "That might be because ...". Might is gradually taking over much of the function of may, and there it would not express non-factuality, merely the same possibility that may expresses. That might does not have to be backshifted in a past-tense context; it can express exactly the same thing in both present and past contexts. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 8 '15 at 18:21
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"Might" suggests possibility without any prohibitive conditions. There was no telling what those shapes were. They could have been almost anything. The possibilities were almost boundless.

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