Giving two opposing facts, one with “may” and one with “but”, suggests the second is stronger and has more importance for the writer
WAYS OF USING “may”
Sometimes the use of a word or grammar structure is best understood not in terms of what it “means”, but rather in terms of what it “does”. There are some uses of the word may that certainly fall into this category. At elementary level we learn how may can facilitate requesting (May I … ?), wishing (May you/he/they …) and giving permission (You/she may …). Elsewhere within these pages, there is mention of predicting (147. Types of Future Meaning), avoiding dangerous certainty (95. Hedging 1: Numbers & Generalizations) and indicating an opinion (107. The Language of Opinions).
“Making concessions” is another of the things that can be done with may in formal writing. A concession is a statement through which writers accept the truth of something said by another person, even though it does not support their own belief (the word “concession” comes from the verb CONCEDE, which means “give unwillingly”). For a may statement to be of this kind, it must usually have an accompanying statement that supports the opposing belief. Here is an example:
(a) Coal may be a cheap fuel, but it harms the environment.
The first half of this statement supports the view that coal fuel is desirable, whereas the second half supports the opposite view – the undesirability of coal fuel – and associates it with the writer.
In this post I wish to examine the components and language of concession statements like (a). For advice on when they might be used, see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts and 168. Ways of Arguing 2.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF CONCESSIVE “may” SENTENCES
Concessive may is always used in combination with a later but or one of its synonyms. The words after may and but must give two facts supporting opposite opinions (that coal in [a] 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 elsewhere, but the ability of may … but … to convey them clearly means that they often remain implicit.
Because the use of may in sentences like (a) associates the point after it with other people than the writer, it 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 (see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts).
The role of but is to signal that an opposite opinion is being implied and that it has the writer’s support (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors for more on the meaning of but). It is the main means of recognizing that the opinion of the writer of (a) is against coal fuel.
If a writer wanted to give the facts of sentence (a) without indicating a personal opinion, it would be possible to link them together like this:
(b) 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, …
In addition to the last option, you can also begin with No doubt …, though the meaning is slightly different (see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #1). Also noteworthy is the expression … is/are all very well, which requires the inconvenient point to be in noun rather than statement form (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)
A further option is the conjunction although placed at the very start (with no may and no later but). However, I feel that this might convey a slightly different meaning: suggesting that it is the writer who is the source of the inconvenient first fact rather than someone else.
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 … .