Jul 02, 2012

Grammar Hammer: There ‘May Be’ or ‘Maybe’ a Shark in the Water?

This week is the 37th anniversary of America’s most beloved and paranoia-inducing shark movie of all time — “Jaws”!

Although the movie was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., the “Jaws” book (and subsequently the movie) was inspired by real events that unfolded on the Jersey Shore in the summer of 1916. It was scorching that year, and droves of people were seeking refuge in the ocean water. In the span of two weeks, four people were killed and one was injured in shark attacks, setting off a frenzy of “man-eater” hunts.

It is unknown what type of shark species was responsible for the attacks, but scholars suspect it was the great white shark or the bull shark.

Which brings us to our rule. Which is correct?

  • The attacks were maybe caused by a great white.
  • The attacks were may be caused by a great white.

Main Rule: “May be” is a verb phrase (verb + auxiliary); “maybe” is an adverb.

Quick test: Replace the “maybe/may be” with “perhaps.” If “perhaps” makes sense, then it’s “maybe.” If “perhaps” doesn’t make sense, then it’s “may be.”

Example 1:

  • Maybe/may be you should get out of the water.
  • Perhaps you should get out of the water.

This example passes the “perhaps” test, so the adverb “maybe” is correct.

Example 2:

  • The shark maybe/may be a vegetarian.
  • The shark perhaps a vegetarian.

This example fails the “perhaps” test, so the verb phrase “may be” is correct.

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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