Lesson #183: ‘Probably’, ‘Possibly’, ‘Maybe’, and ‘Perhaps’: Talking About Likelihood or Chance in English

Have you ever struggled with knowing exactly when to use the words ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, ‘maybe’, or ‘perhaps’? In this Lesson we will look at all the different ways you can emphasise the likelihood or chance that something is going to happen.

I cannot think of a better book full of helpful examples than Frances Burney’s 1782 bestselling classic, Cecilia, with all its dramatic hopes and fears expressed with varying degrees of certainty. In fact, Cecilia influenced several of the books that we will probably (almost certainly) consider later this week!

๐Ÿ“ PROBABLY, POSSIBLY, MAYBE, AND PERHAPS

These four useful words are never used to talk about established facts, but rather about the different degrees of likelihood or chance that something can or will happen.

โœ’๏ธ Probably = more than likely, more than 50% chance of it happening

โœ’๏ธ Possibly = not very likely, less than 50% chance of it happening

โœ’๏ธ Maybe = equally likely or unlikely to happen, 50/50 chance

โœ’๏ธ Perhaps = this is just a formal version of โ€˜maybeโ€™, so also a 50/50 chance

Here are some examples of each one in context – thanks to Fanny Burney’s Cecilia.

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โœ๏ธ PROBABLY

๐Ÿ“˜ ‘His spirit, probably always too high for his rank in life, now struggles against every attack of sickness and of poverty, in preference to yielding to his fate, and applying to his friends for their interest and assistance.’

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

We could say, ‘his spirit, almost always too high for his rank in life, now struggles …’

๐Ÿ“˜ “When I had last the pleasure of addressing you upon this subject, you may probably remember my voice was in his favour; but I then regarded him merely as the rival of an inconsiderable young man, to rescue you from whom he appeared an eligible person.”

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

We might rephrase this as: ‘… most likely you may remember my voice (opinion) was in his favour …’

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œYour alliance then with Sir Robert Floyer is probably nearer a conclusion than I had imagined, for otherwise Mr Harrel would not, without consulting you, have given the Earl so determinate an answer.โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

This could be rewritten as: ‘Your alliance then with Sir Robert Floyer is more likely nearer a conclusion than I had imagined …’

..

โœ๏ธ POSSIBLY

๐Ÿ“˜ ‘… she considered, however, that the intelligence he had heard might possibly be gathered in general conversation …’

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

Since ‘possibly’ expresses a lower chance, then here Cecilia is considering that it is rather unlikely that the ‘intelligence’ (knowledge) he heard had been learned or discovered (‘gathered’) in a general conversation.

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œTrue; it is a name I am perfectly unacquainted with: however, he may possibly be a very good sort of man; but certainly his opposing himself to Sir Robert Floyer, a man of some family, a gentleman, rich, and allied to some people of distinction, was a rather strange circumstance …”

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

Again, it is unlikely that ‘he may be a very good sort of man’.

๐Ÿ“˜ ‘Great, however, was her mortification when he answered that he had not even seen the Baronet, having been engaged himself in so particular a manner, that he could not possibly break from his party till past three o’clock, at which time he drove to the house of Sir Robert, but heard that he was not yet come home.’

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

In other words, ‘… that it was unlikely that he could break from (leave) his party before three o’clock’. But here also there is a sense of unwillingness: ‘that he could not willingly break from his party till past (after) three o’clock’. Sometimes ‘possibly’ has this added sense of being unwilling to go through a particular action or set of results.

๐Ÿ“˜ ‘He might possibly have something to gain, but he knew he had nothing to lose.’

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

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โœ๏ธ MAYBE

A note on ‘maybe’ in Burney’s Cecilia: it cannot be found anywhere in the whole book! Why is this? you may be wondering. It is probably because even though ‘maybe’ has existed as a word in English since the Middle Ages, it did not enter regular usage until the mid-20th century (yes, from around 1950 onwards)!

Before that time, writers and English speakers alike used to use ‘perhaps’, which we still use but which carries a more formal nuance to it than ‘maybe’.

..

โœ๏ธ PERHAPS

๐Ÿ“˜ ‘Here she had dwelt since the interment of her uncle; and here, from the affectionate gratitude of her disposition, she had perhaps been content to dwell till her own, had not her guardians interfered to remove her.’

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

In other words: she might have been content to dwell on her own, if her guardians had not interfered to remove her.

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œBy no means,โ€ answered he, โ€œfor perhaps papa may have been angry, or mama may have been cross; a milliner may have sent a wrong pompoon, or a chaperon to an assembly may have been taken illโ€”โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

Put differently: ‘for it might be that papa may have been angry, or mama may have been cross …’

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œNot with my own knowledge,โ€ answered Cecilia; โ€œperhaps she does not recollect me.โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

‘Perhaps she does not recollect me’ could also be, ‘it might be that she does not remember me.’

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œNo, I never was there myself. Perhaps you mistake me for Mrs Harrel.โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

In other words: ‘Maybe you mistake me for Mrs Harrel?’

๐Ÿ“˜ “I must go, however; and if I am happy, I may perhaps meet with you again,โ€” though, if I am wise, I shall never seek you more!โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

‘… if I am happy, I may perhaps meet with you again’ – this could be, ‘if I am happy, it might be possible for me to meet with you again.’

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œI should have been very glad,โ€ said Mr Arnott, โ€œto have been of any use, and perhaps it is not yet too late; who is the man?โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

Rephrased: ‘… and it might be that it is not too late yet …’

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œPerhaps, Sir, you are thinking of Mr Belfield?โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

๐Ÿ‘‰ Here is an example of ‘perhaps’ used at the beginning of a sentence. You can also use ‘maybe’ in the same way. Rephrased: ‘Maybe, Sir, you are thinking of Mr Belfield?’

๐Ÿ“˜ โ€œYou think me, perhaps, ungrateful, but believe me I am not; I must, however, acknowledge that your censure of Mrs Delvile hurts me extremely. Indeed I cannot doubt her worthiness, I must still, therefore, plead for her, and I hope the time may come when you will allow I have not pleaded unjustly.โ€

– Fanny Burney, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress

And finally, here is an example of ‘perhaps’ being used in the middle of a phrase. Similarly, you can use ‘maybe’ in the same position.

โœ๏ธ One last observation: You can use all of these adverbs with articles โ€˜a, an, theโ€™.

For example you might say, โ€˜It is probably not the best time to callโ€™, โ€˜it was possibly the best thing that ever happened to himโ€™, or even โ€˜maybe an afternoon off work would help you feel better?โ€™

Has this been a helpful overview of these four important words? I certainly hope so, and am sure that the more you look around at English conversations and written texts, the more you will notice the slight but essential differences between these adverbs.

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by Joyce E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2021)