previous next


VERBS, AUXILIARY. May with a negative

May with a Negative. Thus far Elizabethan and modern English agree; but when a negative is introduced, a divergence appears.

In "I may not-come" may would with us mean "possibility," and the "not" would be connected with "come" instead of may; "my not-coming is a possibility." On the other hand, the Elizabethans frequently connect the "not" with may,1 and thus with them "I may-not come" might mean "I can-not or must-not come." Thus may is parallel to "must" in the following passage:--

“Yet I must not,
For certain friends that are both his and mine,
Whose loves I may not drop.

Probably this disuse of may in "may not" (in the sense of "must not") may be explained by the fact that "may not" implies compulsion, and may has therefore been supplanted in this sense by the more compulsory "must."

1 So in ante-Elizabethan English, and in Spenser, we find "nill," "not," for "will not," "wot not," "nam" for "am not," &c. "Cannot" is also a trace of the close connection between the verb and the accompanying negative.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: