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Maybe, May Be Not: Don’t Sweat the Difference Too Much

If you were to walk up to any teenager and read a few of their text messages, you might be inclined to believe that the English language is doomed. From strange abbreviations to confusing acronyms and emojis that imply something different than what they actually mean, modern technology has significantly impacted the way we—especially young people—communicate with one another. 

Shifts in language and communication are only natural as we evolve and become more influenced by the changing world around us. While it is important to recognize errors, there are some that are not worth stressing over. 

Consider the following sentence: 

The baby’s getting fussy, it maybe time for lunch. 

Certainly there’s a genuine error in the sentence: Maybe should be may be. Maybe is an adverb meaning “uncertainly; perhaps,” while may be is a verb phrase, with may acting as an auxiliary, or helping, verb. What the example sentence means is “it’s possible the time has come to feed the baby lunch, but that’s not a certainty.”

There are some editors and linguists who will fret over a mistake like this. They may fear for the fate of the English language and are determined to be vigilant against it.

Interestingly, there are several offending words—anyday, anyway, and everyday, for a start—that are a common part of English. Some experts may push for the “correct” usage, such as:

Is there any way you can do this?

I will love you every day of my life.

These experts believe that if we accept the one-word forms, we will lose the two-word forms’ meanings. That is, we won’t be able to use the noun phrase any way if we accept the adverb anyway.

Let’s be clear: All that’s going on is a change in spelling. The only thing wrong with our initial example sentence is a spelling mistake. 

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Changing the spelling of a word will not limit your ability to communicate a desired message, either spoken or written. Spelling is, for the most part, arbitrary. A word can have more than one meaning; it can even have opposite meanings if we so choose (witness cleave).

The only word on our list above that is a genuine mistake is anyday. However, linguist and editor Jonathon Owen notes that the use of anyday is rare in American English, so it’s not an error worth worrying about unless you come across it while editing a project. 

Writing advice can be very useful if you want to ensure that your work is understood by readers or if you want to be accepted by a specific group, such as publishers. But if we plan to offer advice or correct an error, let’s label such advice for what it is: preferences for words, turns of phrases, and other style decisions.

Some styles of writing are more universal than others. In American English, we prefer to use which to introduce restrictive clauses, while in British English, using either which or that is acceptable. This is so ingrained in American English, many people don’t realize that it’s not a grammar rule. Yet you are free to choose to use that in a restrictive phrase, and readers are free to think of it what they will.

Here’s the takeaway, dear readers: all language users, the advisors and the advisees, control language. You control it as much as I do. When you come across claims about language or advice on using it—no matter from whom—be a critical thinker.

As editors, readers, writers, or simple lovers of language, it is important to choose your battles wisely. If you notice a glaring error in a written work, feel free to point it out. But remember that it’s fine for someone to demonstrate that writing maybe for may be or anyday for any day is becoming more common. It’s fine for that person to educate readers on what the difference is. It’s even fine for someone to teach their writing style to others.

What’s not fine is for someone to proclaim the end of the world with no proof and demand that we all do things their way.

Language is fluid and ambiguous, constantly shifting and adapting to the times and the people who use it. English is your language too. Hold us advisors accountable.

A version of this article originally published in January 2014 on Visual Thesaurus.


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