Things my Copy Editor Taught Me (or tried to…)

Irregular verbs.  Not lie/lay.  I actually do that one pretty well.  But there are a few others that I’m still not sure of.

The Copy Editor’s JOB is to correct my grammar (so I won’t look like an idiot in front of the readers), and thus they’re generally far more cognizant of what correct grammar should look like. Therefore, when one of them dings me on something, I try to figure out what I’m doing wrong so we won’t have to go through it again on the next book.  Sometimes, however, I can’t wrap my head around the differences, and these are two of the verbs that still baffle me.


My second copy editor was the one who caught me on this. I don’t know the difference. After looking it up on-line, I -still- don’t think I know the difference. In fact, now I’m even more confused.

One source claimed that awake is an adjective, totally ignoring the verb awaken, some sites indicate that awaken is transitive while wake is not,  and other sites say that both can be transitive or intransitive.

I ran across an old Lutheran Hymn entitled “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” which does seem to use both as verbs  (for whatever that’s worth.)

Big Words 101 says:

“To sum it up, you can use pretty much whichever word you like, but in general, you will probably use wake more often than awake, except to use awake as an adjective (for example, I am awake now. )”


(Image Source: Big Words 101)

So my research didn’t give me much of an answer as to why that particular editor changed things (and since his changes didn’t change the meaning of anything, I just let them stay.)



Now this one was picked out by that same copy editor, and I know there’s a difference between the two words. Whether I can grasp the difference is still debatable.

Basically (And Grammar Girl explains this very well….across 2 pages) Might is for something that is unlikely, May is for something more likely to happen.

My problem with this stems from what might be a regional difference. For me, Might covers probabilities from 1% to about 90%, and May covers that slim area where you’re asking your mother for permission to go to the store. Seriously? If Mom says that you may after you’ve asked, then the probability that you’re going to go after going to the trouble to ask ‘May I’ is closer to 95%.

So for me it’s always been:

Might = 1 – 90% probability of occurrence

May = 91% +

(For me, May has always been more about permission, not possibility.)


What it’s really supposed to be is something closer to:

Might = 1 – 5%

May = 6% +


So in a lot of places in my manuscript I used Might when a more correct choice would have been May.

When you throw in that the past tense of May is Might (ACK!) and that there are some exceptions to the above standard (such as negatives, I might not is safer than I may not…which sounds like you’ve been denied permission) you end up with a bit of a mess.

Again, however, other sources say that Might/May is open to interpretation…


So I’m afraid that I don’t have a defined line in the sand for either verb. Therefore I’ll just suggest that writers continue to use the version that sounds right to them (and if their copy editor disagrees, it’s likely not worth fighting about!)


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