May or might?

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).

A Reuters report that said President Aquino “may ask the United States to deploy spy planes over the South China Sea to help monitor the disputed waters” gave Beijing and our native ultra-nationalists the fits. President Aquino had to explain that what he said was, “we might be requesting overflights.”

It seems that I’m not the only one confused by “may” and “might.” For example, I don’t know how I should react if someone tells me, “I might shoot you.” Is it the same as being told “I may shoot you?” The correct reaction could make the difference between life and death.

But Beijing’s poobahs don’t have the same problem that I do. After reading the Reuters report, Beijing immediately warned Pres. Aquino about making provocative remarks. Or else they may or might do what?

Of course one may (or is it might?) assume that Beijing probably never bothered to find out if the Reuters’ reporter knew the difference between may and might. But they might have if they had bothered to read “The Grouchy Grammarian” by Thomas Parrish.

“For some reason, reporters, broadcasters, and people generally, have progressively assigned to the word may much of the work that might has long and faithfully performed. This change has tended to blur a highly useful distinction and to produce confusion and doubt where we need clarity. In other words many contemporary sentences with may in them don’t make sense.”

Here at home, Salvador France, the vice chairman of Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya), does not seem to care about highly useful distinctions between words. He is more bothered by cooperation between the Philippines and the US than clarity. He said, “”It is tantamount to US military takeover of the Philippines in de facto form”, that President Aquino “effectively ceded the country’s national sovereignty to Washington D.C.”

The Grouchy Grammarian will not help Salvador who thinks ideologically rather than rationally. But reading the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America might. The title alone is a pretty good indication of a joint and shared commitment to each other’s defense. So how does a request for assistance under the MTD make it a cession of sovereignty?

One highly respected columnist argued along the same line as Salvador, “Just consider this: US spy planes that would be operating over South China (if Aquino’s request is granted) would be under the command of the United States Armed Forces. The US will never allow their military operations to be under another country’s command. What would happen to Philippine sovereignty then?”

Request is the operative word. We can request the US to conduct surveillance flights and share the intelligence gathered without asking them to let us fly their planes as well. The request is pretty much like asking a friend for a ride home. Literally you give up control and your friend can take you anywhere he wants to but reason dictates that he will do as you asked because there is an underlying relationship of trust and confidence between you. The MDT is a written understanding of that relationship between the Philippines and the US. We can ask them to do things for us and they can ask us to do things for them without the condition that the requesting party also has to have his hands on the wheel.

As for Beijing, I wonder what it will do if the US does conduct surveillance flights over the disputed areas with or without any request or permission from the Philippines. Is it going to shoot down those planes? What will they tell the next Reuters reporter who parachutes into Beijing, will it be, “We may shoot down those planes” or will it be “We might shoot down those planes”? Honestly I think Beijing will not fuss over grammar, it will simply say, “We’ll hold the Philippines responsible for any American intrusion into our territory.” That’s what a bully would say.

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