Here is one of those things that I have simply never thought about until recently.

I have a friend who speaks English as a second language and so still has a few overhanging errors in his speech; One of these is to use 'potential' as follows:

He is very potential.

When I corrected this for him, I told him that in that case we would use potential as a noun, "he has a lot of potential", for example.

However, confusion then ensued as we both know that potential is also an adjective, but as far as I am aware, can only be used as a pre-modifier: potential client, potential success, etc.

Is this a unique case? Is there a reason for it?


Am I wrong?

  • 2
    No, you are very correct!
    – Jimi Oke
    Aug 25, 2011 at 16:10
  • Is it just me, or does this actually sound right if you pronounce "potential" as "po-TEN-tee-uhl"? Stilted and awkward, yes, but it would be clear what the speaker meant. Aug 25, 2011 at 16:13
  • @Chris B. Behrens , yes, clear what the speaker meant and it always is clear when he says it. Unfortunately, decipherable is not the same as proper usage. I am quite certain that potential used in this way is not proper, and I certainly can't find any printed examples of it, but nor can I find any reason.
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 16:22
  • Oh, certainly. I'm just wondering why the altered pronunciation makes it clearer...it must be cognate to some other word that I can't place. Aug 25, 2011 at 17:09
  • 1
    Karl, you can accept the answer that best helped you answer your question, or if none of those contain the answer you were looking for, it's perfectly okay to post an answer to your own question and accept that! That's better than editing answers into your question, because the "accepted" checkmark will then be displayed to help anyone else who comes across your question find the answer (they'll have that as well as upvotes to rely on).
    – aedia λ
    Aug 25, 2011 at 19:24

4 Answers 4


It seems that 'Potential' is one of a small group of adjectives that can in fact only be attributive (part of a noun phrase). Turns out, the dictionary does indicate this:


Other examples are : maximum, outright, total (in one sense), utter...


The word "potential" has two common meanings as an adjective. One is "capable of being brought into existence but not yet realized". The other is "having capability or power".

For the former meaning, your usage is correct. For example, if you wanted to express that a "potential client" was actually quite a long shot, you could describe the client as, "very potential". That is, the attribute of being merely a potential client applies to him to a greater degree than the usual potential client.

For the latter usage, you have to follow the word "potential" immediately with what the potential is. Only the adjective usage permits "potential" to be used alone.

He has a lot of potential.

He's a potential superstar.

  • So, are you saying that it is correct to say, 'the client is very potential'? Can you provide some printed context for this, as I am pretty sure it is not proper usage. I'm willing to be told I'm wrong, but I'll need some form of evidence.
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:06
  • It is correct say the client is "very potential" to mean that the client is more potential (less firm) than typical potential clients. If you think it's not proper, what rule do you think it violates? This is the general way you use "very" to amplify an adjective. "He's a smart guy." "Yes, very smart." "He's just a potential client." "Yes, very potential." (More potential, that is, less close to being realized, than most potential clients.) Aug 25, 2011 at 17:20
  • In your given example, the response uses ellipses. It is not a full sentence and only contracts the fuller, "Yes, he is a very potential client." "He is potential", is a construction I have never heard, which is why it first seemed problematic. I can't find a single printed example of it being used this way, which further causes me to think this way. Beyond this though, the potential must be 'for' something. 'Potential Client' - he has the potential to be a good client. 'potential' as a stand-alone adjective - potential to be what?
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:31
  • 1
    I agree. The potential must always be for or to be something. The issue is whether you have to explicitly state what the potential is for or to be. Aug 25, 2011 at 17:42
  • That is indeed the issue. The problem here is that I can't find any reason for it not to be proper other than that it doesn't seem right to me, I have never heard it and connote find a single printed example or a reference in a single dictionary and anyone I've spoken to has agreed with me (until coming here, of course). Grammatically, it does seem sound and yet so much seems to tell me it's wrong, not least of all my own intuition... I hope that doesn't seem too ignorant or annoy you too much? I hope you can understand my reluctance to accept without more substantial support?
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:48

There's potential to this question, although my response may lack potential to adequately answer your question! :)

This is a very good question. I think in the way you are describing the use of the word, it would fall under a "quantifier pro-form". See Wiki on Pro-forms

In your example, you could define the use of the word 'potential' as a pro-adjective, in that it is a word used to describe a function of an individual such as "John Smith has a lot of potential when it comes to accounting". A quantifying pro-adjective surely fits the example because it is used to quantify John Smith's ability as an accountant.

  • This seems like the one, so far. I'll give it a little longer first but thanks for the contribution.
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:13

According to Wiktionary, the problem is that potential is not a comparable adjective, it's an absolute - i.e., something either has potential, or it doesn't. Similar adjectives include extra, favourite and fundamental (there's a good list here).

Strictly speaking, even using comparative words like great or more or less are meaningless, because the degree of possibility is irrelevant - again, it either has potential or it doesn't. However, this is a rule that is frequently bent, as seen in great potential or more potential or less potential.

Let's try taking out the intensifier to see what we have left:

He is potential.

And there, we see the root of the problem, as clearly your friend wasn't trying to say that a person is the definition of potential, only that he has the quality of it.

  • 1
    Yeah, un-gradable adjectives. You're right to point out that it shouldn't really be modified with intensifiers, but the real issue here is its placement in the sentence. I've never seen it used as an adjective unless as a pre-modifier.
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 18:58
  • I added a section on what's left - thanks for the feedback!
    – Hannele
    Aug 25, 2011 at 19:07
  • Thanks, Hannele. Turns out 'Potential' can only be used as an attributive adjective, which means it mud be followed by the noun. If you check a dictionary, you should see this indicated as (attributive) or (attrib.). I've edited the question but don't know how to close since I answered it myself in the end.
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 19:16
  • 1
    I believe you can write up the answer yourself and still accept it - there's a badge for doing this, although I'm not certain about any limitations.
    – Hannele
    Aug 25, 2011 at 19:20

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