Maybe vs. May Be: Easy Tips to Avoid Confusion

What's the difference between maybe and may be? There's more to it than one little space between the words. Check out these easy tips that can help you decide between maybe vs. may be in your writing, or even in your daily conversation.

maybe vs may be definition and example maybe vs may be definition and example

Choose Your Meaning

The obvious difference between the compound word maybe and the two-word phrase may be is the space between the words. But another way to tell them apart is their meaning. The meanings of maybe and may be are:

  • maybe - possibly (Maybe we can fix the fence.)
  • may be - might be (We may be able to fix the fence.)

Do those meanings sound too similar to tell apart? It's true that both maybe and may be describe possible situations. That's why their sentence positions and grammatical functions are important ways to decide between using may be vs. maybe.

Check Sentence Position

Another way to tell the difference is by checking the words' sentence positions. Maybe is typically found at the beginning of a sentence or clause, such as:

  • Maybe I'll visit my grandparents today.
  • Owen might go swimming today, or maybe he'll work out at the gym.
  • Maybe the storm will lift by the time the wedding begins.
  • Let's order pizza for dinner, or maybe we can go out for gyros.

On the other hand, may be always follows the subject of the sentence or clause. For example:

  • Mr. Rivera may be the best candidate for the job.
  • There may be another solution to our problem.
  • This game may be the team's last chance to get into the postseason playoffs.
  • Mom's missing watch may be behind the dresser.

The most common mistake people make with maybe vs. may be is using maybe in the middle of the sentence, such as "Mom's missing watch maybe behind the dresser." As you can see, this usage is incorrect due to its sentence position.

Determine How It's Used

Using maybe instead of may be is also incorrect because they are different parts of speech. Maybe is an adverb that describes a verb, adjective, adverb, or even an entire sentence. That's why you can answer a question with "Maybe." May be is a verb phrase that functions as the action in a sentence. May is a modal verb that pairs with be in this case.

Example of the differences include:

  • Maybe I'll order a sandwich for lunch.
  • I may be ordering a sandwich for lunch.
  • Maybe the traffic is making Vicky late.
  • Vicky may be late because of the traffic.
  • Maybe Perla is stressed out because of her homework.
  • Perla may be stressed out because of her homework.

As you can see, maybe and may be aren't interchangeable because they function in different ways. If you want to use one instead of the other, you have to rewrite part of the sentence.

Switch It Out

If you're looking for a quick way to decide between maybe vs. may be, try switching them out for their synonyms. You can replace maybe with "it's possible that" in specific sentences. For sentences with may be, you can replace the verb phrase with "might be." If the replacements don't make sense, it's not the right word. For example:

  • It's possible that I'll order a sandwich for lunch. (correct; choose maybe)
  • Might be that I'll order a sandwich for lunch. (incorrect)
  • There it's possible that another solution to our problem. (incorrect)
  • There might be another solution to our problem. (correct; choose may be)
  • It's possible that the traffic is making Vicky late. (correct; choose maybe)
  • Might be that the traffic is making Vicky late. (incorrect)
  • Mom's missing watch it's possible that behind the dresser. (incorrect)
  • Mom's missing watch might be behind the dresser. (correct; choose may be)

Once you replace maybe and may be in a sentence, it's easy to tell which one you should use. But there's still one more way to figure it out!


Sound It Out

So you've tried these tips and you're still confused. When all else fails, read the sentence out loud. If you find yourself putting a natural pause between may and be, that's the correct choice. Read these sentences aloud:

  • The principal maybe stopping by. (incorrect)
  • The principal may be stopping by. (correct)
  • Maybe I'll see you there. (correct)
  • May be I'll see you there. (incorrect)

Did you hear the pause in the second sentence? Chances are, the natural rhythm of conversational English can help you choose the right word.

More Confusing Words and Phrases

Maybe you're an expert on these confusing words by now, or you may be in need of some more practice. Either way, it's worth your time to check out these tips on telling more confusing words apart, such as into vs. in to. If you'd like a bigger grammatical challenge, try telling the difference between cannot vs. can not vs. can't.