Giving two opposing facts, one with “may” and the other with “but”, suggests that the second fact is stronger and has more importance for the writer
MULTIPLE MEANINGS OF “may”
There is a common use of may in professional writing that is not often mentioned in mainstream grammars. I call it the “concessive” use because it suggests that the writer is reluctantly stating a fact with it. Before I explain it in more detail, here is a summary of the most commonly mentioned uses of may (some other so-called “modal” verbs can be read about in this blog in the posts 119. BE Before a “to” Verb and 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs).
PERMISSION WITH “MAY”
(a) Students may leave the examination now.
(b) May I borrow your pen?
PREDICTION WITH “MAY” (50% LIKELIHOOD)
(c) Humans may one day visit other star systems.
POSSIBILITY WITH “MAY”
(d) The use of fossil fuels may explain global warming.
The prediction and possibility meanings often carry the extra message that the whole statement is an opinion rather than a fact (see 96. Hedging 2 and 107. The Language of Opinions); while the possibility meaning can also ensure statements are not too broad or sweeping (see 95. Hedging 1). Similar in some respects to the possibility use is may after so that to express a purpose (see 60. Purpose Sentences with “for”).
One other, rather poetic, use of may is to express a wish (not a request!) with the command form:
WISHES WITH “MAY”
(e) May the future bring happiness and prosperity to the country.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF CONCESSIVE “may” SENTENCES
Concessive may is always used in combination with a later but or one of its synonyms. Here is an example:
(f) Coal MAY be a cheap fuel, BUT it harms the environment.
The words after may and but must give two facts supporting opposite opinions. These opinions in (f) are that coal is desirable/undesirable as a fuel. The opinions are not actually expressed in the statement with may … but… , but are merely implied by the two given facts. They may be stated explicitly later, but the ability of may … but … to convey them clearly often means that they remain implicit.
The role of but is to confirm the oppositeness of the implied opinions and also to assert that the writer supports the second of them (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors for more on the meaning of but). The opinion of the writer of (f) is thus that coal is an undesirable fuel.
The use of may in sentences like (f) seems primarily to associate the point after it with other people than the writer. It thus indicates the presence of “multiple speakers” in the text (see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text). In addition, it gives a polite early warning that the writer might disagree with the opinion it is helping to suggest (for more on disagreement, see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts).
The suggestion of another person explains why this use of may is called “concessive”: it comes from the verb CONCEDE, which means to accept the truth of another person’s point despite not liking it. That is exactly what the writer of (f) does when using may be instead of is.
If a writer wanted to give the facts of sentence (f) without indicating any opinion at all, it would be possible to link them together like this:
(g) ONE THE ONE HAND, coal is a cheap fuel. ON THE OTHER, it harms the environment.
SYNONYMS OF “may … but …”
The words may and but in a concession sentence are often paraphrased in a wide variety of ways, some of which are as follows:
SYNONYMS OF “may”
GRANTED/GIVEN THAT coal is a cheap fuel, …
IT IS TRUE THAT coal is a cheap fuel, …
IT HAS TO BE ADMITTED/CONCEDED that coal is a cheap fuel, …
The low cost of coal as a fuel CANNOT BE DENIED, …
Coal is CERTAINLY a cheap fuel, …
Coal is UNDOUBTEDLY a cheap fuel, …
Coal is ADMITTEDLY a cheap fuel, …
Coal IS INDEED a cheap fuel, …
THERE IS NO DOUBT/DISPUTE/DENYING THAT coal is a cheap fuel, …
Similar to these, but not exactly the same, is the expression … is/are all very well (see 159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2, #2). Synonyms not in this list are on the whole to be avoided. For example, choosing correct instead of true, or truly instead of certainly might change the message about the writer’s underlying opinion. The adverbs in the list are of the kind examined more closely in the post 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs.
A particularly common writer choice among the above is certainly. This word can be very confusing because without a following but statement it would suggest that the statement it is in supports rather than opposes the writer’s underlying opinion. Care is therefore needed when it is met in a reading text; the possibility that it is giving an early warning of a disagreement should always be borne in mind.
The reason why is is capitalised with indeed is that it is emphatic, the emphasis being part of the signalling of the concession. Ordinary verbs in the present or past simple tenses would need to add a form of DO to show this emphasis (e.g. Coal does indeed save money, … – see 125. Stress and Emphasis). This use of indeed is the equivalent in academic and professional writing of conversational yes, another typical concession-showing word.
SYNONYMS OF “but”
The most important synonyms of but seem to be connectors rather than conjunctions (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors for a comparison of these two kinds of word). Using a connector causes the two halves of a concession statement to be in two separate sentences instead of one. The main but synonyms are:
EVEN SO (connector)
DESPITE THIS (connector)
ALL THE SAME (connector)
(AND) YET (conjunction)
ALTHOUGH (conjunction, placed before both halves, without may)
PRACTICE IN RECOGNISING CONCESSIONS
The greatest difficulty that concessions seem to give to English users who speak a different mother tongue is in recognising them while reading. Therefore, I offer for analysis a number of concessions in short reading texts (there is a similar exercise in my book Grammar Practice for Professional Writing).
EXERCISE: Read each text below in order to discover (a) the writer’s opinion, and (b) the equivalents of may and but. Answers are given afterwards.
1. Hydro-electric dams do indeed produce clean renewable energy, but in the longer term they can have quite noticeable effects on their surrounding eco-systems.
2. There is no doubt that the purchase of a national lottery ticket requires a much higher proportion of a poor person’s overall wealth than a rich person’s. The social injustice inherent in this is obvious. Even so, national lotteries raise large amounts of money for social causes like sport and the arts, and they provide a very important highlight for those who participate, not to mention those who win.
3. Poorer countries struggling to achieve the level of development of the advanced economies may face numerous obstacles that were simply non-existent when the very first industrial revolutions were occurring. Some striking successes have nevertheless been observed among those who have actively pursued development-focussed policies.
4. Dramatic changes in the activity at the surface of the sun are certainly capable of raising the earth’s atmospheric temperatures, and yet the recently-observed gradual rise in global temperatures correlates very closely with human beings’ dramatically increased use of fossil fuels over the last hundred years.
1. Opinion = Hydro-electric dams are undesirable; Concession words = do indeed … but … .
2. Opinion = National lotteries are desirable; Concession words = There is no doubt that … Even so … .
3. Opinion = Development-focussed policies are desirable; Concession words = may … nevertheless … .
4. Opinion = Global warming is caused by human activity; Concession words = certainly … and yet … .