Maybe vs. may be?

The word maybe is an adverb that means “perhaps” or “possibly.” “May be” is a verb phrase that sets a condition on how something might exist or occur.

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What is the difference between “maybe and “may be”?

English speakers use the expressions “maybe” and “may be” to convey possibility or uncertainty, but how we use them in a sentence winds up looking very different. The biggest difference between these commonly confused words is that “maybe” is a one-worded adverb while “may be” is a verb phrase consisting of two different words. 

Similar cases occur between word pairs like “wellbeing vs. well-being,” “incase vs. in case,” or “cannot vs. can not.” But what sets “maybe vs. may be” apart from the rest is that “maybe” actually derives from a form of “may be.” That’s right. 

According to Lexico, the adverb “maybe” is a compound word that derives from Late Middle English, “it may be (that).” Go figure, right? 

What does maybe mean?

The word maybe is primarily an adverb, meaning we use it to describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs in a sentence. More specifically, English speakers use “maybe” to indicate uncertainty or possibility–– much like the way we use “perhaps.” For example, 

  • Maybe there was a mistake?” 
  • Maybe he will show for the New Years’ party, but who knows?”

You may even hear someone respond to a question with “maybe.” In this sense, “maybe” doesn’t mean no or yes–– It means “perhaps” or “possibly.” For example, 

Speaker A: “Would you like to go shopping on Black Friday?” 

Speaker B: Maybe. It depends on how I feel.” 

Additionally, we can use “maybe” as an informal noun to convey a literal ‘possibility’ or ‘probability.’ For example, 

  • “There’s a lot of maybes and no certain yes’s, or no’s.”
  • “That’s a maybe!” 

Synonyms

Assumably, conceivably, likely, mayhap, perchance, perhaps, possibly, presumably, probably, surely, supposedly. 

What does may be mean?

The phrase “may be” exists as two separate words: “may” as a modal auxiliary verb and infinitive “be” as the main verb. Written separately, the verb “may” expresses possibility or doubt, whereas “be” conveys a ‘state of being.’ 

When combined, the phrase “may be” creates a conditional sentence involving something that ‘might’ or ‘could exist.’ For example: 

  • While that may be the case, you still need more evidence.”
  • There may be evidence to support your claim.” 

Synonyms

Could be, might be. 

How to use “maybe” vs. “may be” in a sentence?

Learning the difference between “maybe” and “may be” is fairly simple, but it helps to compare usage within published examples, too. Let’s take a look at how professional writers integrate the adverb and verb phrase into their writing. 

Example sentences of “maybe

  • “Okay, so maybe we don’t miss everything about holiday travel.” — The Washington Post
  •  “I don’t want a lot for Christmas – and maybe that’s a good thing.” — The Irish Post
  • “Could You Afford a Celebrity’s Childhood Home? Maybe.” — MoneyWise
  • “Responding “maybe” to Facebook, Evite and e-mail invitations is a popular alternative to saying “yes” or “no” outright.” — The Wall Street Journal

Example sentences of “may be

  • “Halfway through the second drink, there may be a flicker of the old euphoria, quickly snuffed.” — The New Yorker
  • “Daytime naps once or twice a week may be linked to a healthy heart, researchers say.” — CNN
  • “Google may be missing a $10 billion opportunity to monetize Google Maps.” — The Wall Street Journal 
  • “…the most important games may be the ones we play when we are young.” — Scientific American

How to remember “maybe” vs. “may be”?

To remember the difference between “maybe” and “may be,” try replacing either term with the word “perhaps.” If “maybe” and “perhaps” are interchangeable, then “maybe” is the correct word. For example, 

Maybe I’ll stay up to watch the stars.” vs. Perhaps I’ll stay up to watch the stars.” 

As shown above, we can switch out “maybe” and “perhaps” without tarnishing the sentence’s meaning. If “perhaps” is not a suitable replacement, “may be” is the correct phrase. For example, 

There may be a yellow-brick road.” ≠ “There perhaps a yellow-brick road.” 

Additional reading: maybe vs. may be

If you enjoy learning about English grammar, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on topics like: 

Test Yourself!

Follow-up your lesson on “maybe” vs. “may be” with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: “Maybe” and “may be” appear in different parts of speech. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The main verb on “may be” is ____________. 
    a. May 
    b. Be
    c. Neither 
    d. Both
  3. The word maybe is a ____________. 
    a. Preposition 
    b. Auxiliary verb
    c. Adverb
    d. Modal verb
  4. Which came first: “maybe” or “may be”?
    a. Maybe
    b. May be
    c. Both words entered the English language at the same time.
  5. Choose the correct word(s): “Regular exercise ____________ a key factor in determining long-term health.” 
    a. Maybe
    b. May be
    c. A and B
    d. None of the above
  6. Choose the correct word(s): “____________ we should watch a movie instead.” 
    a. Maybe
    b. May be
    c. A and B
    d. None of the above
  7. Choose the correct word(s): “I ____________ at the party, but ____________ I’ll stay home.” 
    a. Maybe, may be
    b. Maybe, maybe
    c. May be, maybe
    d. May be, may be

Answers

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. B
  5. B
  6. A
  7. C

Sources

  1. Hall, Barbara, and Wallace, Elizabeth. “College ESL Writers: Applied Grammar and Composing Strategies for Success.” English Open Textbooks, University System of Georgia, 2018. 
  2. Maybe.”  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  3. Maybe.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  4. Maybe.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.