A mighty near mis-fire

It’s good thing I stopped myself before I acted irrationally and fired off another letter to the editor of The Washington Post. Instead I thought twice and had a good laugh at my own expense.

You might remember that some time back I wrote the Post, highlighting a grammatical error in one of the paper’s editorial page headlines. They didn’t find my letter fit to print and I didn’t hear a thing from anyone except my faithful blog readers. (I still owe Craig Dees a prize for best suggested follow-up).

Let me set the stage.

The summer before I started college, I worked in Georgetown with a woman from Charlotte. I’m not sure I’d ever met anyone from North Carolina before, and I found charm in her manner of speech.

Once, in conversation, a phrase she used caught my ear:  “Debbie said I might could borrow her car.” Might could.

I understood that what she meant was might be able to, although I actually thought she was joking when she said it.

As you know, I’ve since met dozens, if not hundreds, of North Carolinians, and have come to enjoy their colloquialisms. Might could is one I still hear a lot but, as many Southerners as I know, I don’t recall ever hearing it from anyone from South Carolina or Tennessee or Georgia or Arkansas or Alabama. No matter.

You’ll find no shortage of online dialogue about might could if you’re inclined to look it up. I learned there’s a Southern rock band called Might Could. Cute.

I also learned that might could is a “double modal,” and is as frowned upon as a double negative. Even so, the phrase, while structurally incorrect, has gained acceptance as a mere regional lapse. Frankly, I’ve heard it so many times over the past three decades that, when I do, only one hair stands up on the back of my neck.

But to read it in the paper, that’s a whole different grind of grits.

Yesterday the Post ran an opinion piece by leading foreign policy expert Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His piece was entitled: “Powering down: A decline in U.S. military might could upend the world order.”

I was outraged. Shame on Dr. Kagan for this sloppy title, if he indeed wrote it, and shame on the Post if they did. I drafted an angry letter in my head as I re-read the header over and over.

Then I realized – that the subject in the sentence was “a decline in military might.” Might. As in strength. Force. Power. The decline [in military might] could upend the world order. Duh.

I was reading it as though a decline in U.S. military might could upend the world order.

Maybe now I can calm down and read Dr. Kagan’s piece.

And maybe my readers from the lovely Tar Heel state, bless their hearts, might could forgive me for the snap.


Filed under All Things Wordish, News

14 responses to “A mighty near mis-fire

  1. Linda V.

    Ha ha ha! Thank you for the laugh. I definitely remember hearing “might could” at Virginia Tech a few decades ago.

  2. chris

    The phrase I have enjoyed and have probably adopted is “how are ‘y’all?” directed to a single person as a greeting. For my first year in the south, I kept on looking around to see who was behind me. At first it was just waitresses that greeted me with this loving hello, but the I noticed that world authors were doing the same.

    • We need to do something with “Do what?”

      During Joe’s first year at Appalachian, he was amused to hear expressions that, until then, he had heard only from his father.

  3. Nuge

    You might could have gotten in trouble. Loved it!

  4. Libby Trull

    Loved this Monica and as a native North Carolinian, I forgive you!

  5. Amber

    Being a North Carolinian, I might could let this one slide.


  6. Mom

    I’ve heard it used by Texans with advanced degrees in the arts. So, huh.

  7. chris

    I get “What now?” from my Alabama friend. I kinda like the Sir? Mame? asking the same question that my New York and Jersey friends would ask thusly, “What the F#@$ did you say?”

  8. Sheree Moyer

    You are so dang clever. Thanks for the giggles!

  9. This cracked me up! In East Texas they say something similar. If you ask someone a question like, “Can you buy soda in the drugstore?” they”ll likely answer, “you used ta’ could.”

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