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expressing possibility: perhaps/maybe, may/might

St Paul's Cathedral

Katinka Raupenstein from Germany writes:

Hi! I'd like to know when you should use maybe and when you should use perhaps. I'm not sure, buy maybe perhaps was used only in former times. In any case, I've never heard perhaps on the radio. All the VIPs use only maybe.


Roger Woodham replies:

maybe / perhaps

In British English both of these adverbs are still very commonly used and have the same meaning. You use them to say that something is possible or may be true, but you are not certain.

They can be used interchangeably but of the two, maybe is very appropriate for more informal contexts and perhaps is used in more formal situations. Compare the following:

  • I can't find it anywhere. ~ Perhaps / Maybe you threw it away.
  • How old is Jane? ~ I don't really know. In her twenties, certainly. Twenty-five, maybe.
  • There were perhaps as many as fifty badly wounded soldiers in the hospital.
  • Perhaps I should explain to you how they came to be there.
  • St Paul's Cathedral is perhaps one of London's most prominent landmarks.
  • Why don't you join us for the New Year celebrations? ~ Yeah, perhaps / maybe I will.
  • Maybe you are right! Perhaps it would be best if you didn't invite Johnnie

Note that perhaps is pronounced 'praps'. Note also from the above illustrations that perhaps and maybe can be used to refer to past, present or future events.



may / might

Similarly, we can use the modal auxiliaries may or might to say that there is a chance that something is true or may happen. May and might are used to talk about present or future events. They can normally be used interchangeably, although might may suggest a smaller chance of something happening. Compare the following:

  • I may go into town tomorrow for the Christmas sales. And James might come with me!
  • What are you doing over the New Year, Ann? ~ Oh, I may go to Scotland, but there again, I might stay at home.
  • If you go to bed early tonight, you may / might feel better tomorrow.
  • If you went to bed early tonight, you might feel better tomorrow.
  • One of my New Year resolutions is to go to the gym twice a week! ~ And pigs might fly!

Note that 'Pigs might fly' is a fixed expression and always uses might. It means that something will never happen.

In the first conditional example, will perhaps could be substituted.

  • If you go to bed early tonight, you may / might feel better tomorrow.

In the second conditional example, where might is an alternative for would perhaps, may cannot be substituted.

  • If you went to bed early tonight, you might feel better tomorrow.



perhaps / maybe / may / might

Finally, as the very last item for 2001, this joke, which gives you further practice of may and might, maybe and perhaps, has been voted the top British joke of 2001! Does this tell you something about British sense of humour? Happy New Year!

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson* go camping and pitch their tent under the stars. In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes his companion up and says: "Watson, look up at the stars and tell me what you deduce.**" Watson says: "I see millions of stars and maybe quite a few planets among them. It may be true that a few of the planets are quite like Earth and there might be life on them." Holmes replies: "Watson, you bloody fool***! Somebody has stolen our tent!"

* Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were the famous characters created by the British writer of detective stories, Arthur Conan Doyle in Victorian England.

** Deduce is a rather formal verb and is used particularly in questions when you want to know what logical conclusions may be drawn from the available evidence.

*** Bloody is a medium-strong swear word, used to give emotional emphasis to something that you are saying. It should not be used in polite situations. For polite conversation, substitute: You stupid idiot!



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