A Decisive Point: Differentiating May Be and Maybe

Posted on May 01, 2019

Homophones are easy to dismantle once you have the right information. The same goes for similar word pairs—all it takes is knowledge of the meaning of each word so that they can be differentiated. But what if there are two words that are spelled in nearly the same way, sound exactly the same, and have the same meaning? That’s the problem that ‘may be’ and ‘maybe’ present.

Maybe or May be

The two words both indicate possibility for something to happen or to reach a potential state. So how does one differentiate between the two, especially when listening?

The key is in knowing which figure of speech they fall under. On one hand, “maybe” is an adverb that indicates uncertainty and is synonymous to “perhaps,” “possibly,” and “potentially.” As an adverb, “maybe” can only modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. It can appear at the beginning or end of a sentence or right beside the word it is modifying. “Maybe this article will be helpful” and “the student writes maybe to pass their time or to pass their subjects” demonstrate these applications of “maybe.”


“May be,” on the other hand, is a verb phrase comprising the modal verb “may” and the auxiliary verb “be.” In combining these two words, one comes up with essentially the same meaning as “maybe.” But since it is a verb, one can only use it to modify a noun. Here’s an example: “That agent may be a fool for not following the rules.”

May be

So “maybe” and “may be” mean the same thing, but they cannot be used interchangeably since they are different figures of speech. For a closer look at this, review the following examples:

  1. Maybe this design is the most successful one in my portfolio.

  2. Westerosi politics may be the most dangerous game for the righteous to play.

  3. This contraption will malfunction and maybe spare the life of the hunters.

  4. Karina’s proposal to fix the master machinery may be the most effective one in the batch.

And here are examples of their different applications in the same sentence scheme:

  1. Maybe this cancellation is the best option for everyone.

  2. This cancellation may be the best option for everyone.

  3. The return of magic indicates, maybe, the resilience of humanity.

  4. The return of magic may be an indication of humanity’s resilience.

When in doubt, just remember that maybe is an adverb and may be is a verb phrase, and consider which words they modify. That should remove any maybes you may be having about their proper use.

And that’s it for now. If you’ve got any other questions on grammar and writing, don’t hesitate to send us your queries. We’ll respond to them as soon as we can. Until next time!


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