How come Japanese doesn't have a "maybe"?

During my first year living in Japan, trying to say "maybe" and "might". At the time 「たぶん」 looked like the word to use for "maybe" but it didn't take long for people to start giving me funny looks for using a word that is closer to "probably" as "maybe". After a while I caught on that 「〜かもしれない」 was a much better was to express "might" or "maybe", but because the word order for 「〜かもしれない」is backwards from what I'm usually thinking when I was to say "might" or "maybe" it always felt a little clumsy. It feels to me more like a "... but I'm not sure" than a "maybe", and I don't like "... but I'm not sure".

Now don't get me wrong, 「〜かもしれない」 isn't so bad once you get used to it. It's very much standard Japanese so you're pretty likely to be understood if you choose to use it. It's just not my thing. It gets me confused if I'm trying to think in English before talking and it's not particularly nerdy. I prefer using 「可能性」 (かのうせい).

「可能性」 is best translated as "possibility", and it's used pretty much the same way. If you want to say you might do something, you can say 「可能性がある」 ("there is a possibility") which, to me, feels closer to its English analogue than "might"/"maybe" does to 「〜かもしれない」. It's also easy to quantify with high, low, or other quantifiers so you can let people know how strongly you feel about something.

  • Very high confidence: 可能性が高い
  • High confidence: 可能性が十分ある
  • Average confidence: 可能性がある
  • Moderately low confidence: やや可能性がある (I like when I have an excuse to use 「やや」)
  • Low confidence: 可能性が低い

Both 「可能性」 and 「可能」 are useful and sufficiently nerdy. I find myself using them just about every day. Just as 「可能性」 is great for things you're not sure about, 「可能」 is the word for things you are sure about.

  • Can do it?: 可能です
  • Can't do it?: 不可能

note: people usually 「です」 after 「可能」 but often leave 「不可能」 on its own. I'm not sure why...

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