I read this tip

Use 'maybe if 'perhaps' works'. But is this correct?

Are they both adverbs? Or one is an adverb and the other is a verb phrase? This is still not clear to me.

I would appreciate the answers with examples. Please let me know the simplest way to identify which to use when.

Grammar Monster uses this sentence -

If you trust Google more than your doctor, then maybe it's time to switch doctors

But then this also makes sense to me -

If you trust Google more than your doctor, then may be, it's time to switch doctors

Am I missing something?

  • 3
    I'm not a grammarian, but I think may be in the second alternative look not quite right. (The first one looks correct to me.) It might be better to rephrase the second one as If you trust Google more than your doctor, then it may be time to switch doctors. – Damkerng T. Nov 24 '13 at 3:31
  • The question “What does ‘may’ mean?” may prove quite useful in understanding the differences between these two things. – KRyan Nov 24 '13 at 16:31
  • This question should be protected. It has received 3 spam answers in 20 minutes. – James May 1 '15 at 3:45

This question is a nice one since it is a good chance for me to refine my own grammar skill too.

As you already know, both of them indicate possibility, some degree of uncertainty.

Maybe is an adverb.

May be which has a similar meaning as might be or could be is two words. The word may in may be is an auxiliary verb. You can say that may be (two words together) is a verb phrase. (I wasn't sure about this "verb phrase" thing until I consulted some references.)

Knowing that, it is now easy to answer your questions.

  • Is this rule of thumb correct?

    Use 'maybe if 'perhaps' works'.

    Yes, it is correct. Both maybe and perhaps are adverbs. Both indicate some degree of uncertainty. If one fits in your sentence, the other will too.

  • What about these examples?

    If you trust Google more than your doctor, then maybe it's time to switch doctors.


    If you trust Google more than your doctor, then may be, it's time to switch doctors.

    The first one is correct. The word maybe is used as an adverb here. (You can try replacing it with perhaps, which is perfectly fine.)

    The latter one is an incorrect usage, since it doesn't work if you scan the sentence, knowing that may must be an auxiliary verb.

I would also like to offer another good rule of thumb:

Use 'may be' only if 'verb to be' works

For example, using your example, if you try replacing may be with is you will see immediately that the sentence doesn't work,

If you trust Google more than your doctor, then is, it's time to switch doctors.

Definitely incorrect. So you need to use maybe instead.


I would recommend thinking of things like this:

“maybe” could be “perhaps”

“may be” could be “might be”

This just gets away from the two being confusingly similar.

Grammatically, “maybe” is an adverb, while “be” is a verb, here used with “may” as an auxiliary verb. The word “perhaps” is another adverb with a meaning very similar to “maybe,” while “might” can be used as an auxiliary verb with much the same meaning as “may.” But “mightbe” is not a word, and “be” is almost never used without an auxiliary verb so “perhaps be” still needs one.

@DamkerngT’s suggestion of swapping “may be” with “is” (or another form of the verb “to be”) is also quite good: it changes the meaning, but has the same grammatical role, so if “is” works grammatically, then “may be” will also work grammatically.

  • The "is" test is pretty good. It doesn't work 100% of the time: "It probably is" is fine, but "it probably may be" is strange because of the double modality. – snailplane Nov 24 '13 at 23:27

Although "maybe" looks like the words "may" and "be", it functions separately and differently, just like "however" is not "how ever".

It is also phonologically different. Maybe is /ˈmeɪˌbi/ with stress on the first syllable. May be is /ˈmeɪˈbiː/ with equal stress on both syllables. So we can clearly tell the difference between the two in spoken English.

"Maybe" is related to "may be" the sense that the pattern:

Maybe [clause]

can usually be rewritten, and can perhaps be regarded as a contraction of:

It may be that [clause]

The "it" is a place-holder subject, just like in "it is raining" or "it is said that ...".

"Maybe" is a fairly flexible particle which applies to entire clauses ("Maybe I should wait"); verb phrases ("I think he maybe went home already"), adverb phrases ("I can finish that in three hours, or maybe sooner"); adjectives ("I don't remember what color it was: maybe red, maybe orange"); or nouns ("I see a vehicle in the distance, maybe a bus, coming this way"). "May be" cannot be in the same way, simply by placing it in front of a clause or phrase. It is a compound verb which requires the formation of a clause with a subject. If we replace all these uses with "may be" we have to rearrange or complicate the sentence so that there is a proper embedded clause built around "may" with a subject: "It may be that I should wait"; "It may be that he went home already"; "I can finish that in about three hours, or it may be that I can finish it sooner"; "It may be that it was red; it may be that it was orange"; "I see a vehicle, which may be a bus, coming this way".

And so,

Maybe it's time to switch doctors.

can also be expressed as

It may be that it is time to switch doctors.

possibly even with the complementizer omitted:

It may be it is time to switch doctors.

But "May be (/ˈmeɪˈbiː/) /it's time to switch" is not grammatical. The verb "may" is lacking a subject.

  • This... does not seem to answer the question. It answers more “how are ‘maybe’ and ‘may be’ related?” without really touching on when and how to use each. The examples are good, and it may be (hah!) that the OP can glean understanding from them, but it seems like this leaves a lot up to the reader, particularly a reader who does not already know the answer. – KRyan Nov 24 '13 at 16:30

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