Maybe vs. May Be: What’s the Difference?

A compound word is two or more words combined to form a new word. There are many compound words in English, like windmill, strawberry, granddaughter, and maybe.

Maybe also has a near homophone in the phrase may be. Since, in this case, the words are kept separate, it is no longer a compound word. May be is actually a verb phrase.

Is the compound word maybe and the phrase may be ever interchangeable? Continue reading to find out.

What is the Difference Between Maybe and May Be?

In this article, I will discuss the difference between these two: maybe vs. may be. I will give an example of each in a correct sentence. Plus, I will reveal a useful trick to use when you can’t decide whether may be or maybe is appropriate.

When to Use Maybe

Definition of may be definition of maybe definitionWhat does maybe mean? Maybe is an adverb that indicates possibility. It is therefore a synonym of the adverbs possibly and perhaps.

For example,

  • “Maybe later on, you and I can go swimming together down at the holler,” Susanna offered.
  • “Maybe,” Tom replied, “but Pa needs me to put the cows out to pasture first.”
  • Maybe what you can go online and get tomorrow. (Told you some things had changed.) Maybe what you could buy your partner (ditto). Maybe what to put on a wish list. –The New York Times

When to Use May Be

Define may be and define may be grammarWhat does may be mean? May be also indicates possibility, but it is a verb phrase, rather than an adverb.

May be consists of the verbs may and be, which are separate words here, and which refer to something that could happen or a state of affairs that might exist.

For example,

  • I may be young, but I am wise beyond my years.
  • Mia may be going to the beach today, but only if she doesn’t have to drive herself.
  • Rapidly melting Greenland may be shedding its ice even faster than anyone suspected, new research suggests. –The Washington Post

Trick to Remember the Difference

Still confused? Here is a helpful trick to remember may be vs. maybe

May be and maybe are two different parts of speech, and they can’t be substituted for each other.

  • May be is a verb phrase.
  • Maybe is an adverb.

In the chart below, I isolated the usage of may be and maybe as verbs by graphing usage of the phrases “maybe true” and “may be true” using Google Ngrams.

maybe versus may be

As you can see, maybe is never used as a verb. This chart references books written in English since 1800, so it’s not compete or scientific, but it’s accurate enough to identify long-term usage patterns.

You can remember to only use the phrase may be as a verb since it contains two separate verbs. By looking at the parts of speech contained in this phrase, it will be easy to know how to use it in a sentence.

Summary

Is it maybe or may be? While these words contain all of the same letters, they do function as different parts of speech, and they cannot be substituted for each other.

  • Maybe is an adverb that means possibly or perhaps.
  • May be is a verb phrase that indicates something that might happen or a potential state of affairs.

Since the verb phrase may be contains two separate verbs, you will always remember not to use it as an adverb. Likewise, maybe is only ever an adverb, and never a verb.

If you are still confused, you can always refer back to this article to help you remember, and for guidance on whether maybe or may be is the word you want to use.

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