Maybe vs. May Be: The Simple Trick to Always Keep Them Straight

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If you want to improve your writing, it doesn't hurt to master some English grammar skills. One of the questions a lot of writers asks is how to use the word maybe: specifically, when to use maybe vs. may be.

Maybe vs. May be: The Simple Trick to Always Keep Them Straight

Don't worry. You're not alone in thinking that the English language can have some difficult rules to remember when it comes to grammar and writing.

Today, let's focus on when to use the word maybe versus the phrase may be to improve your writing.

Here's the quick rule for maybe vs. may be:

The Simple Trick to Maybe vs. May Be

If you can replace it with “potentially,” use maybe. If you can replace it with “might be,” use may be.

If you're interested in knowing WHY this is true, read on!

The Difference Between Maybe and May Be: The 9 Parts of Speech

Maybe and may be are both used to discuss possibility. However, they are different, with the main difference between these two words being that they are two different parts of speech.

As you may remember from elementary school, there are nine different parts of speech:

  1. Noun
  2. Verb
  3. Adverb
  4. Adjective
  5. Preposition
  6. Article
  7. Interjections
  8. Pronoun
  9. Conjunctions

Need a refresher on these? Check out our full parts of speech guide here.

But which part of speech do maybe and may be fall under?

Maybe Is an Adverb

Maybe is an adverb, which means it needs to modify a verb. As an adverb, the word maybe means possibly.

It's also a synonym for perhaps.

For instance:

  • Maybe I'll cook soup for dinner.
  • Maybe Jill will ask Jack out.
  • Maybe you could stop at Starbucks before coming over?

Also, notice how where a word like “might” is not usually used in the beginning of a sentence, the verb “maybe” very well could be—something worth pointing out since many ESL (English Language Learners) mistake maybe for might when first learning American English.

But what about the word may be?

May and Be Are Both Verbs

On the other hand, the phrase “may be” uses two verbs, which can work as separate words. This also means that “may” and “be” express a state of being.

Separated, “may” is a modal verb and “be” is a main or auxiliary verb.

When these word are separated, “may be” acts a verb phrase that means “could be” or “might be.”

Separated, the verb “may” expresses possibility where the verb “be” express a state of being.

As verbs, the phrase “may be” will always modify a noun. Some example sentences of this are:

  • John may be at the dance tonight.
  • Heather may be joining us for brunch.
  • Courtney may be late.

The English language often combines two different verbs that, when placed together, usually convey a different meaning than the verbs do when they stand alone.

How to Use  Maybe vs. May Be (With Examples)

The tricky fact is that they have similar meanings, which makes it more difficult to distinguish. So with that in mind, look at the difference between these two words in context:

Correct:

  • Maybe Deon will be interested in going swing dancing next week.
  • Deon may be interested in going swing dancing tonight.

The first sentence is correct because “maybe” is modifying the verb “will be.” If you replaced it with “potentially” it would mean the same thing, but if you replaced “may” with “might” it wouldn't make sense.

“Might be Deon” just sounds weird, right?

The second sentence is correct because “may be” is the action for the proper noun, “Deon.” If you replaced “may” with “might” it would sound normal, “Deon might be interested….” Sounds good, right? But if you replaced it with “potentially,” it would be weird.

“Deon potentially interested….” Unless you're a caveman, that doesn't sound right.

Let's look at some incorrect examples:

Incorrect:

  • May be Shirley will go to tango night with us.
  • Shirley maybe going to tango night with us.

For the first sentence, again try replacing “may be” with “might be” and you'll find it sounds more like Yoda-speak than normal English.

For the second sentence, replacing “maybe” with “potentially” feels weirdly clipped. You'd have to say, “Shirley potentially will be going…,” to make it work, and even then, “may be” is much smoother.

Let's look at a few other examples that use correct grammar:

Correct:

  • Vardy says he may be doing a cha cha performance next week.
  • Vardy says he is thinking about maybe doing a cha cha performance next week.
  • If Tina goes dancing tomorrow, she may be showing off her new swing skills.
  • If Tina goes dancing tomorrow, maybe she can show off her new swing skills.

Are you seeing it now?

The Trick to Never Confuse Maybe and May Be Again

Again, the easiest way to make sure you're using these correctly is to replay “maybe” with “potentially” and “may be” with “might be.” If the sentence is still correct, you're good. If it's not, then you know you need to change it.

So there you have it. Now you'll never confuse the two again! But just to be sure, let's practice the two with a creative writing exercise.

Need more grammar help? My favorite tool that helps find grammar problems and even generates reports to help improve my writing is ProWritingAid. Works with Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and web browsers. Also, be sure to use my coupon code to get 20 percent off: WritePractice20

PRACTICE

To practice using maybe and may be correctly, use the following writing prompt

Write for fifteen minutes about the possibility of something that happens at a cookout. Use may be and maybe appropriately as often as you can. Post your practice in the practice box below and leave notes for your fellow writers.

Enter your practice here:

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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41 Comments

  1. WriterMummy

    So if you can sustitute ‘perhaps’, you write maybe, otherwise it’s ‘may be’? Thanks!

    Reply
    • James Hall

      You know which one I hate the most?

      Laying, lying, lie, lay, lain, laid

      Those ones still trip me up quite often. Honestly, I try to avoid them if possible.

      Reply
      • WriterMummy

        Oh goodness yes, and I seem to get sank and sunk muddled up.

        Reply
        • James Hall

          Well that stinks, stank, and stunk!

          Reply
          • WriterMummy

            🙂

          • Winnie

            Hasn’t this all to do with tenses? You know, past, present, and future, perfect and imperfect and all that?

  2. James Hall

    My labor day weekend was spectacular. Got out nearly 6000 words, have in my head, the path from another 6000, which will bring me near the middle of my book.

    I consider this an achievement since I’ve also spent the last three days driving posts and fixing fence. I have chigger bites up to my shoulders. I have chigger bites everywhere, and I do mean Everywhere.

    I may be miserable, but I’m happy, maybe!

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      I hate chiggers. We didn’t have them in CA and so when these little red things started landing one one day and biting until it stung I was pretty surprised.

      So cool to hear about your progress James. I wonder if the physical labor had anything to do with it? I’ve often thought that physical work balances the mental work of creative writing well.

      Reply
      • James Hall

        I find that post driving makes me so fatigued, I tend to sleep instead of write. Though I do think exercise is good for the mind and creativity, I doubt it helps when it exhausts you.

        So, for the most of Friday and Saturday, I struggled to start writing. I had to come up with new ideas. I probably only got 1000 or so words in those days. I wrote most of it on Sunday and Monday, when I had gotten the ball rolling.

        Reply
        • Katie Hamer

          I’m glad you’re making progress. I will definitely take the time to read your first 3 chapters 🙂

          Reply
          • James Hall

            Thank you for your interest. Just let me know if you want more to read. (I’ve finished 10, pounding out two more right now)

            If you have a work in progress, I’m always interested in sharing critiques.

          • Katie Hamer

            Hey James! Sorry for the delay in my reply. I’m in Berlin for the music festival at the mo, and Internet access is very slow…

            I’m planning on reading your chapters when I get back home, and am happy to provide feedback. Thank you for offering to critique my work. I’m thinking of taking you up on that offer 🙂

          • James Hall

            No problem, just let me know when, you can email me at vozey@yahoo.com anytime.

      • James Hall

        Oh, and 50 chigger bites, I’ve found, doesn’t encourage the writing either. 🙂

        Reply
        • Birgitte Rasine

          Only 50? Try the “chiggers” down in Colombia that I had the profoundly questionable pleasure of getting to know this past January when my family and I were down there on a fishing expedition. A test of sheer willpower it was not to scratch the skin right off my legs.

          But it was really nothing compared to the dangers of piranha-infested rivers, water cockroaches (yes the ones that bite with a poisonous venom), caymans, parasites galore, and high-voltage electric eels. Life here in the US is rather comfy gentlemen! 🙂

          Reply
          • James Hall

            Haha. I’ll pass on all those.

            Was funny, a co-worker told me a story of her city-dwelling grandma when she first moved to the country (and was younger). She had some urge to run through the tall grass fields, like they do in the movies. Said she ended up going to the doctor because of all the bites she had (and not knowing what it was). Was so funny!

  3. Alex Schiffer

    Thanks for clearing this up in such a simple, informative post.

    Reply
  4. R.w. Foster

    This is very useful. Maybe you could do one for passed/past, lay/lie/lain/laid/laying/lying (That’s for both of us, James!), sank/sunk (For both of us, WriterMummy!) and fish/fishes?

    That last one really bugs me because when I was in school (many eons ago), I was taught that the proper plural for multiple fish was the same as the singular. Now, I’m being told that both are acceptable – that is, when I’m not being told the proper is “fishes”.

    Thanks, Joe.

    Reply
    • James Hall

      You also have to watch out for affect and effect. Sneaked and snuck.

      Reply
      • R.w. Foster

        Is sneaked a word? It doesn’t feel like one to me.

        Affect and effect are rather easy for me due to science. 🙂

        Reply
        • James Hall

          I have an easy time with affect and effect as well, but it commonly confuses people.

          Sneaked is a word. Actually, the snuck is getting underlined on this spell checker.

          Sneaked is the older of the two, I believe. This is why Tolkien used sneaked as opposed too snuck. Snuck kind of sneaked into our language. And, to me, sneaked has always sounded snucky. It’s just not right.

          Thank god for crept.

          Reply
          • R.w. Foster

            True. You know what else I’ve noticed that confuses people? They’re, Their and There, Your & You’re, ect. WTAF? Did no one pay attention in English class?

            Tolkien gets a pass with me. The man gave us Elfish, Dwarfish, Elves, Dwarves and Ents. Hobbits, too. Heck, if it wasn’t for him, we’d not have Dungeons & Dragons, and I wouldn’t have my novel!

            Crept? I thought it was “creeped”?

          • James Hall

            crept is the opposite. Crept is the original and creeped is the transformation. More oddities have crept into our language than we could possible count. We need to scrape it and start over.

            Plus, only a creep would use creeped. Creepy.

            As for They’re, Their, There, Your, and You’re, I’ve DONE these on accident before, used the wrong one. But sometimes I doubt people know what PROOFREADING is.

            Ahh. Tolkien. He made mythology cool.

        • Winnie

          I’ve come across the word ‘snuck’ quite often. Mostly in Westerns though. Alongside ‘knowed’.

          Reply
          • R.w. Foster

            Indeed. That’s where I’m most familiar with them from. Also “ain’t”, “kin”, “Kinfolk”, and “git” (not the English Git which I believe means idiot). 😀

      • R.w. Foster

        Thanks, Joe! You’re awesome.

        Reply
  5. Josh

    “May may be coming,” said Beatrice.

    “Yeah maybe. She never comes to any of your barbeques Bee.”

    “May may be a little less friendly than she used to be ever since she got those bee hives, but she may be the best friend I ever had.’

    “Bee, May’s bees have nothing to do with whether she comes. She told me she doesn’t like some of the company you keep lately.”

    “Who?” Asked Beatrice.

    “She wouldn’t name names.”

    “Maybe Joe then. Or Matt.”

    “Maybe Bee, but I don’t think so. I think it’s one of the girls. I overheard Dee saying something bad about May’s bees to Di.”

    “That doesn’t sound like May to me. Just because Dee sees something bad about May’s bees and tells Di, it doesn’t mean that May would see her way out of a great barbque.”

    “Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway Bee, after this labor day it may be time to see that Dee doesn’t come and see if maybe May will step away from those bees and eat some of this steak and drink some of this sweet tee with you, Di, and me.”

    “Maybe you’re right. We’ll see. Just maybe.”

    Reply
    • Jay Warner

      This little piece is an exquisite tongue-twister, fun and full of Mays and Bees and everything in between. I like it! Good job, Josh, you may be the king of maybe.

      Reply
  6. James Hall

    Terry, WHO lives on a farm, loves Mary, WHOM does not.
    who goes with subject
    whom goes with object.

    I wonder how many 1000’s of times I’ve done this wrong in my novel.

    Reply
  7. Esme Orange

    “I am not really sure what will come in the future…” I don’t know where the hell is my will to overcome my fears, I just wish I knew, maybe things will change, maybe not, I wish I could be more sure of that, no doubts whatsoever. I may be, it is like half being, it is like loosing yourself here and there. Can I just be now and forget about all the doubts some other day.”

    Reply
  8. Brianna Worlds

    “Maybe we should head back,” Blyd murmured from behind me, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. I could tell he was uncomfortable in the enemy grounds; it was obvious in everything from his shifty-eyed appearance to the way he spoke.
    “Yeah, because we’ve found so much,” I retorted in a whisper. I wanted to find something before we made our escape out of this conspicuously modern lab. It was mind-boggling after living in a world that was so behind the advanced technology of Earth.
    Blyd frowned. “Come on,” he muttered, his tone beginning to acquire an irritable edge. “I don’t like the feel of this.”
    I rolled my eyes. “Well, you won’t have seen anything so high-tech since you lived on Earth. Of course you’re on edge,” I demurred.
    Blyd scowled and cursed under his breath. “Fine. But I’m keeping watch at the door. I’ll whistle sharply three times if someone’s coming… Actually, screw that. I’ll just scream at you to run and haul you out the door.” A faint smile ghosted over his lips and I couldn’t help but grin.
    “Okay,” I whispered in return. “I’ll not be long.”
    Blyd may be easy going and lax most of the time, but something about this place made him nervous, and through him, me, despite my dismissive demeanour.

    Reply
    • KT

      you wrote it?

      Reply
      • Brianna

        Oh gosh, I did, but four years ago. It took me a bit to remember who those characters were and what they were doing!

        Reply
        • KT

          Enjoyed reading, Keep it up.

          Reply
          • Brianna

            Thank you 🙂 I just finished the first draft of my first novel, so I’m certainly doing my best!

          • KT

            Congrats. All the best.

  9. Jacki Dilley

    Over by the grill where they’re slapping down pieces of onions and red peppers and zucchini, he’s pushing the hair out of her eyes. She may well be having an affair with my best friend.

    At the very least, she’s in love with him. I thought that maybe I was worried over nothing, but she got weird last night when I said, let’s skip the whole Labor Day cook-out thing and go hiking instead, just you and me.

    “You’re withdrawing from our friends,” she told me, “and I don’t have that much fun when just you and I do something.” She said it feels like I’m trying to possess her, that maybe I didn’t see how empty our relationship was becoming.

    She’s certainly having fun now. They’re hitting each other playfully — anything to be touching. The rest of us don’t exist.

    Are all our friends feeling sorry for me at this very moment? They may be thinking that Kate and Colin are having an affair right beneath my nose and I see nothing.

    Jill is over there looking at the lovebird chefs, too. Maybe she’s thinking what I’m thinking. They were so happy last year and now they’re squabbling every time we see them.

    I don’t see why Kate doesn’t just break up with me if she’s so taken with Colin. We don’t have kids. We’re not married. Why does she hang on? I wish I had the guts to go over and talk with Jill about what she thinks. Maybe if I didn’t need Kate so much, I could.

    Reply
  10. KT

    I came across a sentence which reads as “No obvious diffraction peak of the metallic Pd phase was detected may be because of the very low amount and too small particle size of PdNPs on the CoAl-LDHNWs”. Here I guess it should be “maybe”, but I am confused what it is modifying

    Reply

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