May or might?

When is it right to use may and when to use might?

Opinions vary, depending on what you read. Here are a few guidelines culled from the Economist Style Guide and the Oxford Guide to English Usage.

1. If the truth of the event is unknown, then may or might are interchangeable.

• I may/might go home early

• if I go home early, I may/might have to come in early tomorrow

• he may/might have come home early.

2. If you are stating a certainty, use may.

• I may be a linguist, but I don’t speak German.

3. If the event never actually happened, or you are stating something contrary to fact, use might.

• If I had come in earlier, my whole life might have been different

• if I had wings, I might get to work more quickly.

4. Use might when following a conditional subjunctive.

• If I were to go home early, I might have to come in early tomorrow.

If you have any questions about writing skills, you too can pose them on our forum.

Writing tips for nurses, Nursing Standard

Being a capable wordsmith may not be what you signed up for. But clinical nurses are spending more and more of their working day on writing tasks. Rob Ashton of Emphasis gives six tips on how nurses can become better writers.

A well-presented document, a clear and succinct email, a precise and persuasive report all go a long way to ensure nursing maintains professional standards. This makes sense, as good writing skills equal good communication – a prerequisite for effective nursing.

Just as nursing requires dedication and practice, so too do effective writing techniques within the clinical setting.


Identify your target audience.

To write effectively, you have to understand the needs of the people you are writing for. Think of the variety of audiences you have to communicate with as a practitioner – such as patients, other nursing professionals, physicians. Then think about how you communicate differently to each. If it’s a report for a healthcare organisation, find out the ethos of that organisation. If it’s for a nursing manager, do they need to be informed or persuaded – or both?


Overcome the fear of the blank page.

Break through writer’s block by:

  • establishing the purpose of your writing and what you hope to achieve
  • using mind maps or spider-grams to get ideas flowing
  • creating a defined timeframe with deadlines and milestones
  • writing in incremental bursts if you’re faced with a lengthy document
  • Focusing on your readers’ needs but (crucially) forgetting about their possible judgements of the work.

If you’re really stuck, set an alarm for five minutes hence, then tell yourself you only need to write until it goes off. After all, how bad can five minutes be? What you’ll probably find is that you speed up as the time starts to run out, giving you the energy to burst through the block. But if that doesn’t happen, stop at five minutes, give yourself a ten minute break, then set the alarm for another five-minute session. Two or three short sessions like this are usually enough to cure the block.
These apply to most writing tasks, including proposals for improvement projects, reports, patient records, staff references, memos and even emails.


Keep going until you have a complete working draft.

Forget about perfection – for now. Organise the relevant information on separate piece of paper (such as with a mind map – see above), then write. Only when you’ve finished should you revise and edit. Even the greatest writers work from a rough, first draft. Make sure you plan first though, as a ‘stream of consciousness’ can be very difficult to disentangle once you’ve written it.

To help with the final edit, ask yourself if you’ve addressed all your pertinent issues, especially problems, action and results.


Don’t dress it up.

Florid language and great swathes of rhetoric won’t impress a busy board member, nursing manager or worried patient who wants to read only the salient facts. Time is of the essence in a clinical workplace, so clear, direct communication is key. Present your message clearly from the start in a straightforward style that will keep your audience interested.


Don’t be lax in your report writing.

Computerised report templates may have made the task easier but they are no replacement for courtesy and good grammar. Never make shortcuts in punctuation and spelling, and make sure the facts are correct.   Get someone else to look over the document if you’re unsure of its accuracy.


Be honest.

If you don’t understand the subject matter, the chances are those reading it won’t either. Don’t mask your lack of understanding with unnecessary jargon. If you’re working collaboratively – on a report or proposal, for example – ask for help.

With written communication now so much a part of clinical nursing, these tips –and a little practice – should give you the confidence to handle any writing task. A little time spent perfecting the process now will leave you more time for other pressing responsibilities in the future.

Rob Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis, the specialist business-writing trainers.

Reader-profile questionnaire

That business writing should be centred on the reader’s needs is not exactly earth-shattering news. But putting this maxim into practice is a different matter altogether.

Reader-centred writing

If you’re like most people, you’re much more likely to be focused on your own needs – such as impressing your manager or getting the task of writing a report off your to-do list – than on those of your audience. So you need to take definitive action to switch yourself out of this default position.

Nor is it enough to identify the areas of the subject that are going to be most useful to the reader(s). You also need to gauge their likely level of interest. And, of course, if they have very little interest in the subject, you will need to work extra hard to grab and keep their attention.

You can find out more about grabbing and keeping attention on our courses. But for now, you can download our free reader-profile questionnaire to help you focus on the needs of your audience.

Executive summaries

No matter how well structured and well written your report is, some clients will feel they only have time to read the executive summary – and this is particularly true for senior management. So it is absolutely essential that you put a lot of thought into its structure and content:

* Make sure the summary can stand alone and that it contains real information, including hard facts and figures.

* If your report includes recommendations, make it clear what these are and include their implications, values and costs (if applicable).

* Stick to a maximum of two pages.

* Use headings and bullets (but not too many), and perhaps a carefully selected graph or pie chart, to get your main message across.

Power to the people

People power counts for a lot in writing. ‘One in a hundred people’ is likely to produce a much bigger reaction from readers of your reports than ‘one per cent’, even though they obviously mean the same thing.

Before you dismiss this as another example of general ignorance, you should know that experts are not immune to this effect. One study showed that it could trip up forensic psychiatrists, for example. They were twice as likely to refuse to release a patient if they were told that ’20 out of 100′ were likely to be violent after release than if they were told that there was a ’20 per cent chance’ of this happening.

One individual’s story is likely to override even the most powerful numerical evidence – at least if you’re writing for the general public. And even if you’re not, mentioning people (‘lawyers’, for example) rather than groups (‘the legal profession’) will give your writing much more impact.

Charities know this when they use heart-rending case studies to get your support for their causes. And governments know this when they use the term ‘collateral damage’ to play down accidental loss of life (by avoiding mentioning people at all).

You can use ‘people power’ to make your writing more effective. If you leave people out, you will almost certainly reduce its impact. Which do you want to do?