Why “May or May Not”?

No Finnish version for this one.

I don’t have time to write anything sensible, so I thought I’d analyse this silly little thing that came to mind.

I’m under the impression that it’s common in English to say “may or may not.” But that actually does not make sense, because what people mean with it is “may and may not.” It means both things are possible, not that either one is possible or the other is possible. This may sound confusing, because someone might think that I’m now saying it’s possible here for both things to be true at the same time. Well, I’m not. I’m saying in such a case both are possibilities, either can be true. Both can’t be true at the same time since they’re framed as something and its negation, but what is being said is that either one thing is the case or the other is, that both of these options, neither of which involves both possibilities being true, are possible.

So it makes little sense to say “may or may not.” It means the same thing in the end anyway in the sense that the possibly possible is possible, but it adds an unnecessary layer of meaning and emphasis. It would make sense to say “may and may not,” or “may be or not be”. It also makes sense to say “is or isn’t,” but not “is and isn’t,” because then you’re talking about actualities and they really are mutually exclusive. Similarly, it would be wrong to say “may be and not be,” since that would mean it (whatever it is) possibly is and isn’t at the same time.


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