The Grammarphobia Blog

Why ‘mayn’t’ may not live on

Q: I’ve encountered “mayn’t” often lately— e.g., in Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, etc.—but my usage manual says the contraction is now rare. What happened to it?

A: The use of “mayn’t” is indeed rare today, though it was common in the 19th century, when Lewis Carroll was writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and in the early 20th, when Kenneth Grahame published The Wind in the Willows.

Many standard dictionaries still have entries for “mayn’t,” the contraction of “may not,” but it’s rarely heard now in British English and it’s virtually nonexistent in American English.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “mayn’t is rare in all varieties of English.”

Suzanne Romaine, writing in The Cambridge History of the English Language (1992), says the contraction “moved from colloquial normality to great rarity in the course of the twentieth century.”

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum note the virtual demise of “mayn’t” as a negative auxiliary verb: “though current in the earlier part of the twentieth century, it has now virtually disappeared from the language.”

And the British linguist David Crystal, in a Jan. 25, 2015, entry on his website, says “mayn’t” is “very rare in British English, and would hardly ever be used in American English.”

Why is “mayn’t” dying out or dead? Probably because English speakers are using “can’t” instead. And that’s undoubtedly the result of the increasing use of “can” for “may” as an auxiliary verb to ask or grant permission, a subject that we discussed in 2017.

As we say in the earlier post, the traditional rule is that “can” means “able to” and “may” means “permitted to.” For example, “Jesse can run fast” and “May I go for a jog, Mom?”

However, standard dictionaries now accept the use of both “can” and “may” as auxiliary verbs for asking permission, though some suggest that “can” here is informal.

As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, “The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts.”

The M-W lexicographers suggest that the permission sense of “can” evolved from the use of both auxiliaries to express possibility, “because the possibility of one’s doing something may depend on another’s acquiescence.”

The contraction “mayn’t” showed up in writing in the early 17th century, according to citations in the OED. The dictionary’s earliest example is from “On the University Carrier,” a 1631 poem that Milton wrote during his Cambridge years: “If I mayn’t carry, sure I’ll ne’er be fetched.”

The comic poem marks the death of Tobias Hobson, driver of the coach that carried students between the university and The Bull, a London Inn. Hobson also hired out horses. The expression “Hobson’s choice” is said to come from his insistence that anyone hiring a horse must choose the one nearest the stable door.

We’ll end with a “mayn’t” example from Alice in Wonderland. It’s a bit long, but we couldn’t resist the pun at the beginning of this excerpt.

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,” added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth. At last the Gryphon said to the Mock Turtle, “Drive on, old fellow! Don’t be all day about it!” and he went on in these words:

“Yes, we went to school in the sea, though you mayn’t believe it—”

“I never said I didn’t!” interrupted Alice.

“You did,” said the Mock Turtle.

“Hold your tongue!” added the Gryphon, before Alice could speak again. The Mock Turtle went on.

“We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—”

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