I Might Could

Question from the Peanut Gallery today:
I hear some Texans (including my wife) use a word combination of “might could.” Your response?

“Are you going to bring kolaches to work tomorrow?”
“I might could,” the tall Texan answered.

People in the southern US use this expression informally, although grammarians consider it preferable to say “I might be able to.” Those hoity-toity grammarians would recommend using “I might” or “I could” alone, claiming that using both is redundant.

“In standard English, ‘might’ or ‘could’ are used by themselves, not together,” writes Paul Brians in his book Common Errors in English Usage. He cites similar expressions that are strictly prohibited: “had ought,” “hadn’t ought,” “shouldn’t ought,” and “might can.”

Well, if “might” expresses possibility, as covered in Tip #139, and if “could” expresses ability, as covered yesterday in Tip #141, then the stacked modal expression “might could” expresses two different modalities, the possibility of the future ability. If the tall Texan answered “I could,” the guy who wanted kolaches would feel far more confident of his breakfast the next day and might not eat his Cheerios at home beforehand. But the Texan said “might could,” so a bowl of Cheerios may be in order.

I would maintain that “might could” is not redundant or repetitive, but adds an extra dimension of meaning. It means “maybe I could” or “possibly I could” or “I don’t know whether I could or not” or “perhaps I could” or “maybe I will be able to if traffic isn’t too bad.” After living in Texas for 30 years, I have adopted several useful expressions in my speech, and “might could” is one of them, although I would use “might be able to” in formal writing.

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