I often read of "potential risks". This moved further into the realm of uncertainty with "can be a potential risk" in a recent, scientific magazine. Given that measurements of risk incorporate the less than 100% likelihood (which could be arbitrarily low) of an outcome occurring, what differentiates a "potential risk" from an actual one?

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    This can be a risk = This is a potential risk. "This can be a potential risk" is double dipping the possibility. Commented Oct 20, 2014 at 5:01
  • I always stressed that the adjective 'potential' deals with the degree of risk, not the existence. A 'potential risk' is one with a higher possibility than a unqualified risk. Read: '(high-) potential risk.' This phenomenon is quite common in phraseology.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 20, 2014 at 7:20
  • Questions like this often will see responses that because there is some redundancy then the redundancy should be cut out. But, redundancy can be helpful. It reduces the information density of speech. There should probably be some general purpose FAQ about redundancy... Commented Oct 20, 2014 at 11:50
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    It's at risk of being at a very high voltage.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 17:27
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    If you're being paid by the word, you might prefer "can be a possible potential risk that could happen." The problem is that readers are rarely paid by the word.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 7:10

4 Answers 4


I've wondered this before, as well. I wasn't able to find anything on the internet that directly addressed this problem so I'm approaching intuitively. In my mind 'potential risk' is potential because the action is potential. If you are thinking about blowing the whistle on something illegal going on in your company, you could potentially be risking your career. The minute you do blow the whistle, you are risking your career. Until you actually go to the press you haven't taken the risk, so it's potential.

  • Thinking is not a cognizable offense, doing is? Lol.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 20, 2014 at 7:21
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    Yes, I like this line of reasoning. A 'potential' risk is a risk that currently has a likelihood of 0%. A likelihood of > 0% (but of course < 100%) would be contingent on another, conditional event occurring. I suspect, however, that the term 'potential risk' is typically not used in this context, but is used incorrectly to refer to the risk itself rather than in conjunction with a conditional, preceding event.
    – David Fyfe
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 0:34
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    In "you could potentially be risking your carreer, isn't either 'could be' or 'potentially' redundant? Meaning that "you could be risking your career" or "you are potentailly risking your career" have the same meaning, because "potentially" and "could be" are pretty much the same. Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 10:44

what differentiates a "potential risk" from an actual one

Adding 'potential' could indicate Knightian uncertainty (ignorance, unknowability), in addition to or instead of quantifiable risk. In other words, a 'potential risk' is one that is still unknown (could be zero probability), whereas a 'normal' risk has a known probability strictly greater than zero.

  • Yep, this wording is reasonable when you suspect that some aspect of the situation MIGHT contain a risk, but you have not researched it enough to know whether there really is a risk or how serious it is. Basically it's a potential problem that bears further study, vs some risk (such as an asteroid striking you) that you just accept.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 20:07

In most cases it would be redundant, but in the example provided by Waywardeevee, and in other examples of that character, I agree that it is not.


Oy gott. "Potential risk" and "potential danger" are grossly redundant. "Danger" denotes the possibility of harm. To say something is "potentially dangerous" means there is the possibility of the possibility of harm. To say "can be potential risk" means there's the possibility of the possibility of the possibility of harm. If this isn't the matruschka reality you're describing, just say "It's risky" or "It's dangerous."

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    This sort of reductionist analysis ignores the pragmatic and social functions of language. "Potential risk" might be redundant, (though I'm not convinced it is always so), but "grossly" is a subjective judgment, and redundancy often has value.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 16:32
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    The language is full of pleonasms, from free gift to safe haven to false pretense, some of which bother some people and others of which bother other people, but which are nevertheless a fact of usage. Language is not something to engineer so that you always encode information in as few words as possible, at least not for ordinary people.
    – choster
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 16:45

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