A co-worker frequently uses the phrase “X is most likely attributed to Y” and it feels wrong to me. I think you have to say “X is attributed to Y” and can’t qualify it with “most likely” or anything similar.

For example, I will write “vomiting is attributed to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.” However, writing “vomiting is most likely attributed to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract” feels incorrect.

Am I off base here? Thanks!

  • I think even 'attributed' is incorrect. Vomiting is hardly a worthy cause or result. And in the noun form, attributes are positive qualities. They could say “vomiting is caused by inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract” or “vomiting is most likely caused by inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract” Nov 18 at 12:40
  • You are correct; that usage is off. Nov 18 at 14:19
  • I think the word your colleague wants is attributable. Nov 18 at 15:11
  • Why shouldn't you be able to say "X is most likely attributed to Y"? You can where it has a passive interpretation.
    – BillJ
    Nov 18 at 15:24
  • attributed to someone and attributable to someone are not the same thing. One is a statement of fact and the other a statement of possibility.
    – Lambie
    Nov 18 at 15:57

2 Answers 2


What your co-worker is trying to say is that X is most frequently attributed to Y, or most likely to be attributed to Y. The statement is about the tendency of the authors, not the nature of X.

You can say that X is most likely a consequence of Y, which is about X and Y, and not about what writers tend to do.

  • Yes. Perhaps OP is after “X is considered by many to most probably be caused by Y”. Nov 18 at 16:19

Cambridge has:

Attribute, verb:
to say or think that something is the result of a particular thing:

attribute something to something:
Her success can be attributed to three main factors

Hence we may say X is attributed to Y, meaning that people believe X results from Y. Where there is some doubt about the attribution, it seems reasonable to qualify such a definite statement by saying X is likely attributed to Y, meaning that there is a probability less than 100% that Y caused X.

For example, Ill health is likely attributed to poverty implies the possibility and probability that poverty contributes to ill health, but avoids the incorrect certainty of Ill health is attributed to poverty, a statement that ignores all the other causes of poverty.

Note that in legal usage, a more restrictive use of likely sometimes applies, meaning more likely than not, and therefore implying a probability of more than 50%.

Law Insider
Likely means more likely than not

  • No, it doesn’t work like that. If you put your sentence in the active voice, you can see that: [Researchers] likely attribute ill health to poverty. That’s not what you’re trying to say. Nov 19 at 0:02

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