How to use the word “risk”

Consider the following:

There is a potential risk that the Company may refuse to satisfy your demand.

Almost every time I read the word “risk” I have to correct how it is used. This is usually because it is preceded by the word “potential”.

“Potential risk” is a tautology. All risk, by its nature, is potential. Potentiality is inherent in the word “risk” and does not need to be repeated.

In the same way you should avoid using phrases like “there may be a risk”, “there might be risk” or “there could be a risk”. The word “risk” includes the notion of possibility, and combining it with “may”, “might” or “could” is redundant.

Instead you should say “there is a risk” or “there will be a risk”.

So the above sentence should read:

There is a risk that the Company will refuse to satisfy your demand.

Some people may argue that in some circumstances you’re not sure whether there is a risk. Well, think about it – that means there is one until you find out for certain that there is not.

So, do not write “potential risk”. “Risk” by itself is enough or, if the risk is not high, use “slight risk”, “low risk” or “small risk”.

Words that are similar to “risk”, like “possibility” and “chance”, should be treated in the same way. So avoid sentences like this one:

WRONG
Therefore, there could be a potential possibility that the contracts might be awarded to the affiliated companies.

RIGHT
Therefore, it is possible that the contracts will be awarded to the affiliated companies.
Therefore, the contracts might be awarded to the affiliated companies.
Therefore, there is a small chance that the contracts will be awarded to the affiliated companies.

 

Footnote: How to use the word “potential”

Generally speaking – you have little reason to. Almost every time I see “potential” or “potentially” I delete them. Consider these examples:

This document could be a potential basis for claims.
Here “could” does the job.

Potentially, there is a possibility under Article 19 sec. 1 that the draft decision is not in accordance with FYSA’s opinion.
Here “possibility” does the job.

Potential sanctions that may be imposed by the National Appeal Chamber or the District Court include invalidation of the agreement and/or a financial penalty in the amount of up to 10% of the remuneration envisaged in the agreement.
Here “may” does the job.

In addition this may dilute the power and reputation of the Trademarks, making them more vulnerable to potential attack.
Here “vulnerable” does the job.

We attach to this letter a list of programmes which might be potentially of interest to you.
Here “might” does the job.

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4 Responses to How to use the word “risk”

  1. Jo says:

    Great job, Barnaby. I think Italians could possibly be the most guilty of this ‘overkill’.

    (overkill intended ;-))

  2. Reblogged this on Graemeophones – A World Built of Words and commented:
    Avoiding tautologies: risk vs. potential risk

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