The Grammar Factor – February 2011

Maybe and may be

Reader’s question: What is the difference between maybe and may be?

Answer: Maybe as one word means perhaps. If you are uncertain about whether to use maybe or may be, try substituting the word perhaps.

     Maybe we’ll be late.
     Perhaps we’ll be late.

May be is a verb (be) plus an auxiliary verb (may). In this context, may means possibly.

     We may be late.

Question marks with rhetorical questions

Reader’s question: Does a rhetorical question end with a question mark, exclamation mark or full stop?

How great is that?
How great is that.
How great is that!

Answer: I would use a question mark, but I think you could treat that sentence as an exclamation rather than a rhetorical question.

Here’s what I have to say about question marks in my Punctuation Guide ($9.95 at  

Question mark usages

We use question marks for direct questions, rhetorical questions and to express doubt.

Direct questions
The most common use of the question mark is after direct questions.

     Are you leaving soon?
     What time are you leaving?

Rhetorical questions
We use question marks for rhetorical questions.

     You’re not wearing that dress, are you?
     Why you and not me?

You can use a question mark to express doubt. In informal writing, you may even use one in the middle of a sentence.

     I think she wrote the play in 1999?
     In 2005 (?) I saw a stage version of that play.

No question marks needed
No question marks are needed – despite what Microsoft grammar check may think – with indirect and reported questions or polite requests. 

     I’d like to know the answer to the question. 
    Would you please shut the door behind you.

Top 10 words of the year for 2010

Merriam-Webster Inc. has announced the top 10 words of the year for 2010.
1. austerity
2. pragmatic
3. moratorium
4. socialism
5. bigot
6. doppelganger
7. shellacking
8. ebullient
9. dissident
10. furtive  

New words?

A reader commented that TV journalists are prone to using the expression nex jeer.

Another reader saw twitterverse used in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Word of the month

Fakecation – when you spend your whole vacation visiting relatives. Or in my case, reading grammar books! – the dictionary you wrote (since 1999)


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