March 31, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: maybe/may be & dilemma/problem

Posted in dilemma/problem, may be/maybe at 5:27 am by dlseltzer

Sighting:

A reader from Northwestern writes:

I love this blog.

I wanted to pass along a sign I saw this week.  A park building here in Chicago supports a children’s acting program and the sign outside the building announced the latest production like this:

Young Actor’s Presents <name of play>

Makes me want to get some white-out to ditch the apostrophe and the “s” at the end of “Present”

Agreed.

Tip 1 : Maybe or may be

A reader writes:

Has there been a wlut for ‘maybe’ and ‘may be’?!

Issued by The National Weather Service
Pittsburgh, PA

Thu, Mar 10, 2011, 5:33 AM EST

A WINTER STORM WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 9 PM EST THIS EVENING THROUGH FRIDAY EVENING.

* HAZARD TYPES… HEAVY SNOW.

* SNOW ACCUMULATIONS… POSSIBLY MORE THAN 6 INCHES.

* TIMING… LATE THIS EVENING INTO FRIDAY EVENING.

* IMPACTS… DIFFICULT TRAVEL… PARTICULARLY FOR THE FRIDAY MORNING COMMUTE. POSSIBLE POWER OUTAGES SINCE SNOW DENSITY MAYBE THE HEAVY WET TYPE.

No, there hasn’t been a wlut for ‘may be’ and ‘maybe,’ but I’m thinking, maybe, there should be.

Using ‘maybe’ when ‘may be’ is called for is a common mistake. I think that sometimes we are in so much of a rush that we smash words together without giving it much thought. But this mistake is pretty easy to avoid if you just remember that ‘maybe’ is synonymous with ‘perhaps’ and ‘possibly,’ and you can substitute one of these words for ‘maybe’ to check whether the sentence still makes sense.

Maybe the experiment failed because we left the beaker in the waterbath too long.

Perhaps the experiment failed because we left the beaker in the waterbath too long.

Possibly the experiment failed because we left the beaker in the waterbath too long.

In both of these cases, the sentences still make sense, so ‘maybe’ is used correctly here.

‘May be,’ on the other hand, is a verb phrase meaning ‘could be’ or ‘might be.’ It cannot be replaced by ‘perhaps’ or ‘possibly.’

She may be the best speaker we have ever heard at this seminar series.

She perhaps the best speaker we have ever heard at this seminar series.

She possibly the best speaker we have ever heard at this seminar series.

The latter two sentences don’t make sense; the verb ‘to be’ is missing, so you cannot use ‘maybe.’

You could, however, replace ‘may be’ with ‘could be’ or ‘might be.’

She could be the best speaker we have ever heard at this seminar series.

She might be the best speaker we have ever heard at this seminar series.

These substitutions work, so ‘may be’ is the correct form in this example.

Substituting ‘perhaps’ for ‘may be’ or ‘maybe’ may be the best way to check the correct usage. If the sentence still makes sense, then ‘maybe’ is the right choice. But then again, maybe you have another way.

Tip 2: Dilemma or problem

I recently read this:

The dilemma of racial and ethnic disparities in health care demands a solution that will result in equitable care.

And I sighed. The use of ‘dilemma’ to mean ‘problem’ is more and more common. However, they are not synonyms and should not be used that way. At least not yet. I suspect that eventually their meanings will merge, and the synonymous use of ‘problem’ and ‘dilemma’ will be universally accepted. But not yet.

‘Dilemma’ means a choice between TWO unattractive alternatives. [NOTE: Fowler notes that a ‘dilemma’ can refer to more than two alternatives, but he insists that the dilemma still refers a DEFINITE number. Most other authorities are content to keep the number at two.] So while racial and ethnic disparities in health care is certainly a problem, the disparities don’t really constitute a ‘dilemma,’ they constitute a problem.

As I said, I suspect that eventually these words will be used interchangeably, but for now, let’s limit a ‘dilemma’ to two unhappy choices.

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