More people seem to have trouble with conditional verb usage than any other form. May and might are used interchangeably. Lay and lie are likewise confused. There are scores of others, but we'll start with these two samples.
May or Might: which one should you use? To find out, try them in sentences.
- You may have been killed!
- You might have been killed!
OK, the response to the second is, "But I wasn't killed. I'm okay."
The response to the first could easily be, "Oh, my goodness! Was I killed?"
In determining which one to use, may or might, first determine the time and intent of the sentence. Is it something that, if it happened, makes the question possible? Does it make sense?
When in doubt about whether to use may or might in a sentence, substitute can and could. That translates the above sentences to "You can have been killed" and "You could have been killed." Obviously, unless you're talking to a ghost or a vampire, you wouldn't tell someone that they can have been killed.
Lay or Lie: If you've been brought up to believe that to lie is only to prevaricate or tell an untruth, then let me introduce you to a better definition.
- I'm going to lay down.
- I'm going to lie down.
In the second sentence, I realize you're probably tired and want a nap. In the first sentence, I want to know what you're going to lay down.
Again, using synonyms for the words in question can get you out of a sticky situation where the reader may misunderstand you. A synonym for lay down is put. A synonym for lie down is recline.
- I'm going to put--- [Famous sample, first line of "Down By the Riverside:" "I'm gonna lay down my burden..."]
- I'm going to recline. [I can almost see the recliner now, can't you?]
Set and Sit: often confused because they're similar, short, and sound alike.
- Set down and rest a spell.
- Sit down and rest a spell.
(Yes, I know the examples are Southern. I'm in the South now.)
Using synonyms will help you out of the jam. Set=put. Sit=be seated.
- Set down that bag of groceries and rest a spell.
- Be seated and --- no, I'm sorry, folks just don't often use be seated in conjunction with "rest a spell," but you get the idea.
Check back soon for more commonly confused verbs!