In an article that I'm writing, I would like to say that some special ideas are at a disadvantage concerning their consistency in producing results. In other words, we use those approaches in the hope of getting a reasonable result, but the methods are presently poorly understood, so we can only hope for a good result. So please help me to correct any grammatical deficiencies in the quoted sentence:

The main disadvantage to these approaches is that they tend to be on the off chance.

"These" refers to the mentioned approaches in a previous sentence. Is off chance correct here? Is it OK to use in a scientific paper?

  • I added the questions I think you are asking in order to make it clearer what you want answered. Please feel free to edit it if I have misinterpreted your intent. – Kit Z. Fox Dec 21 '12 at 17:03
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    And just to make sure the point isn't lost in the fascinating detail: "off-chance" doesn't imply just uncertainty (that would be "chancey" or "unpredictable"), it implies low probability. – StoneyB Dec 21 '12 at 17:51

The construction

X on the off chance Y

Indicates that some action (described by a complete clause X) is undertaken in hopes that it brings about (but probably will not) another action (described by complement clause Y).

Y (which is required) must be a complement clause introduced by that (that could be omitted in informal styles, but keep it in for a research paper). A model usage would be:

David took the 7:30 train home on the off chance that he would see Mira.

Furthermore, Y usually has a modal auxiliary as its finite verb (could, would, might, should).

To reword your sample sentence so that it fits the template for this expression,

The main disadvantage of these approaches is that they tend to be undertaken on the off chance that they could succeed, rather than with definite expectations about when they will bear fruit.

A commenter has correctly pointed out that Y could also be a gerundive verb phrase introduced by the preposition of (e.g., "of succeeding", "of finding a way out of the cave"), as in

David took the 7:30 train home on the off chance of seeing Mira.

A slight variant of the construction is a type of conditional construction:

(If) On the off chance Y, X.

Which indicates some action represented by X that should be taken in the (unlikely) event that Y occurs. Here, Y usually does not have as its finite verb a modal auxiliary. e.g.,

(If) On the off chance that you see butter at the store, buy two pounds.

  • +1 By the way, it's great that you don't use unnecessary abbreviations. Makes your answers so much more readable than some linguistic treatises that would otherwise be perfectly clear. – Cerberus Dec 21 '12 at 17:21
  • +1 You might add that a Y is required, which is what OP's attempt misses. In your first examples, where the phrase means something like "with the unlikely hope", Y may also be a prepositional phrase headed by of: "on the off chance of seeing Mira", "on the off chance of success/succeding". I'd regard the second use, "in the unlikely event", as a mis-use, but I'm an old fart and history is trending away from me. – StoneyB Dec 21 '12 at 17:23
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    Correction: required, or elliptically implied. "You're unlikely to succeed." "Yes, well, I'm doing it on the off chance." – StoneyB Dec 21 '12 at 17:30

Correct? I'm not sure, but to my own ear, for some reason your example does not sound quite right. Per the OED, an off-chance is:

b. off chance, off-chance, a contingency out of the probable course; a remote chance, a by-chance.

One of their citations illustrates how the term is normally used:

  • 1893 Stevenson Beach of Falesá 144, ― I thought there was an off-chance he might go back on the whole idea.

Also, I prefer the hyphenated version myself.

  • But according to Longman Dictionary, When I looked up "chance" I found this: On the off chance: if you do something on the off chance, you do it hoping for a particular result, although you know it is not likely. – A.Gh Dec 21 '12 at 17:16
  • How do you feel about using off-chance as in your quotation, that is, outside the construction on the off-chance that? Is it still used in modern prose? – Cerberus Dec 21 '12 at 17:22
  • @Cerberus I think it might be ok as written, even today. – tchrist Dec 21 '12 at 18:03
  • I prefer the hyphenated version too, and I agree it doesn't sound quite right in OP's construction. Also, since no-one else seems to have mentioned it, I'll just say that to my ear, doing anything on the off-chance [of something turning out to be the case] sounds decidedly informal. So I wouldn't even consider using it in a scientific paper. – FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 23:17

The use of the idiom isn’t quite right and, so, is inappropriate for (scientific) publication. How about:

The main disadvantage of these approaches is that they {fail to}/{do not} consistently deliver/yield reliable/accurate/usable results

(Yes, one of these options contains a split infinitive, up to you—or the journal—to choose whether you follow that anti-split fashion.)

The off chance idiom could be used in a talk:

We employed these approaches on the off chance that they work(ed), though in several cases they didn’t.

For me at least, though, I can only do something on the off chance. Something cannot be on the off chance.


I think off-chance could be used in a scientific paper, but not in this context.

"The main disadvantage .. is that they tend to be on the off chance"

sounds decidedly informal and in need of a rewrite. (In general, I often find myself rewriting sentences that have the construct, "The main X is that...") In other words, I would change:

The main problem I have with this sentence is that I don't think it's well-constructed.

to something more direct, such as:

I have a problem with this sentence: it is not well-constructed.

or, more simply:

This sentence is not well-constructed.

So, your sentence could be reworded:

These results tend to be on the off-chance, which is a disadvantage.

and I think that would be an improvement.

But, getting to the heart of your question, I still don't like it, because of the phrase on the off chance. NOAD lists on the off chance as an idiom meaning, "just in case," and offers this example usage: Joan phoned at noon on the off chance that he’d be home. I don't think it's good to describe results as "just in case." I think what you really want to say is:

These results are produced inconsistently, which is a disadvantage.

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