Change one letter and you can completely alter the meaning of a word. We see this with “affect” and “effect.” And then you get more confusing situations like with “all right” and “alright,” but what if the only difference is the inclusion or omission of a space? Do you know when you should use “maybe” and when you should use “may be” instead? I’ve got a simple test to simplify the matter.
Maybe (one word) is an adverb. It’s used to indicate a positive possibility without any reasonable sense of utmost certainty. An easy way to remember whether or not you should be using “maybe” is to replace it with “perhaps” in your sentence.
- Maybe I’ll go tomorrow if the weather is nice.
- If it’s not enough, maybe we’ll get a snack afterwards.
- Do you want to meet my friend George? Maybe.
May be (two words) is used as a verb (where “be” is the main verb). Confusing, it also gives a sense of possibility without certainty. To determine if “may be” is correct, try replacing it with “might be” or “could be” in your sentence. This will give you a similar kind of meaning.
Since “to be” also conjugates to am/is/are depending on the subject, you can try replacing “may be” with the appropriate conjugated form. This replaces the sense of possibility with a sense of certainty. It’s not that it might be expensive; it is expensive.
- Tim may be the best engineer we’ve ever had.
- Learning to drive may be hard, but it’s worth it.
- This may be your last opportunity to make things right.
For each of the six example sentences above, try inserting both the “right” and “wrong” replacement terms to see what I mean. “Perhaps I’ll go tomorrow if the weather is nice” still makes perfect sense. “Might be I’ll go tomorrow if the weather is nice” does not make sense. “Am I’ll go go tomorrow if the weather is nice” just sounds ridiculous.
“Tim could be the best engineer we’ve ever had” is fine. “Tim is the best engineer we’ve ever had” is perfectly logical. “Tim perhaps the best engineer we’ve ever had” is incorrect.
The nuance here is nowhere near as subtle as what we see with “some time” and “sometime.” That’s all the more reason why you should be extra careful about whether you use “maybe” or “may be” in your sentence. Whatever the purpose or style of your writing may be, maybe it’s in your best interest to pay closer attention to the words you use.