Thursday, September 20, 2007


What if?

Counterfactual history is about working out what the consequences would have been if a particular historical event had had a different outcome. What if Hitler had been assassinated, what if Kennedy hadn't, that sort of thing.

Counterfactual may is this sort of thing:
Helmet may have saved cyclist: police
... where the unfortunate cyclist was killed:

Police say a bicycle accident that killed a man could have been avoided if he had worn a helmet
In contrast to this more time-honoured usage:
Helmet May Have Saved Local Motorcyclist’s Life, Police Say
... where the victim survived:
A helmet may have saved the life of a local motorcyclist who was thrown headfirst into the side of a truck that struck him Saturday morning, Temple police say ...
He was taken to Scott & White hospital where doctors determined the only injuries he suffered were bruises, abrasions and possibly a wrist fracture, police said.
Sometimes counterfactual may can stray into the realm of counterfactual history. What for example, if President McKinley had not been assassinated:
The newly-developed X-ray machine was displayed at the fair, but no one thought to use it on McKinley to search for the bullet, which may have saved his life
Or if the Titanic had not hit that iceberg:

Ninety-five years later, the key which may have saved the luxury liner is up for auction
Now linguistic innovation per se is not something to get excited about, I realise, but developments such as counterfactual may are clearly problematic for those of us whose work involves figuring out what people are trying to say.

Perhaps to distinguish the two uses, at least in the written language, it would be helpful if this counterfactural use could be combined with another thriving innovation, as illustrated here:
What suggestions/improvements would you have that may of made the Titanic stay afloat?

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