JS Tip 497: "Maybe" or "May be"
From the Writing Workshops: “Maybe” or “May be”
“‘Maybe’ or ‘may be,’ that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler . . . .”
Wait a minute. No. That’s Hamlet. Sort of.
Our friend Bruce May asked us to explore the difference between “maybe” (one word) and “may be” (two words).
The English Teacher Answer
“Maybe” is an adverb and “may be” is a verb phrase. So there.
Wait a minute. Plain English, please.
The Plain English Answer
Both terms mean the same thing: Something is possible, but not certain.
But each term serves a different purpose. Notice these examples:
1. Carolyn is the new CEO.
2. Maybe Carolyn is the new CEO.
3. Carolyn may be the new CEO.
Example one is definite. She’s moved into the office, and her name plate’s on the door.
Example two isn’t certain, but “maybe” is an adverb modifying (telling us something) about the verb—the “is.” The “is” isn’t certain. It’s not definite.
Example three isn’t certain, but “may be” is the verb (a “state-of-being” verb, a “describing” verb). Notice how it’s in the middle of the sentence. (It’s called a verb phrase because it has two words.)
So . . .
So if the phrase is a verb casting doubt on the statement, separate the “may” from the “be”:
“Arrrgh. The gold may be buried there . . . at the ‘X.’” Thunk.
But if the statement already has a verb, and you want to cast doubt on its certainty, keep the two together:
“Arrrgh. Maybe the gold is buried there . . . at the ‘X.’” Thunk.
We love this stuff.