Wednesday, January 04, 2006


I've noticed a growing trend among media types to use a certain turn of phrase which has the hallmarks of mediaspeak and which is hopelessly redundant.

This certain turn of phrase occurs with words like 'danger' and 'risk'. Both these words imply that there's a possibility of something unfortunate or unwanted occuring. They are not absolute words, therefore they can be qualified, or even quantified: you can have a 'low fire danger' or a '40 per cent risk of getting out if you pad up to an off-spinner. However, they are completely intangible things. They don't actually exist; danger and risk aren't things you can see, touch, feel or mark in a diary. They're not things you can pick up from the shop on the way home. They are used more to estimate the likelihood of something more tangible happening: if you go skydiving there's a danger of injury or death; if you have sex, there's a risk of pregnancy (assuming that pregnancy at the time of the act is unwanted. 'Risk' carries somewhat negative connotations in this respect. If you do want a child, then there's a chance, or a possibility of pregnancy).

What then, of the writer who speaks (or writes, obviously) of 'potential dangers' or 'potential risks'? What is 'potential danger' but the possibility of the possibility of harm or injury? What is 'potential risk' but the chance of the chance of something going wrong? It doesn't matter how remote the chance is; if there's a chance that something might happen, then there's a chance. So you can say there's a low risk, or a slight, minimal or 1 per cent risk; you can say there's little danger, or that something is a bit dangerous. But potentially dangerous? If something is said to have the potential to be dangerous, then we're saying that under certain circumstances, there are risks involved; and when my Concise Oxford defines 'risk' as a chance or possibility of danger, loss, injury, or other adverse consequences then you can see that we're beginning to talk in circles. Danger of an accident or risk of an accident is the same as potential for an accident.

'Risk' and 'danger' are not faits accomplis so by using the terms 'potential risk' and 'potential danger' a writer implies that the removal of the potential will surely result in whatever the risk or danger was. By using the superfluous word, there's a risk that the words themselves may lose their meaning, until 'risk' and 'danger' are regarded as certainties, unless the 'potential' is expressly mentioned.

And just out of interest, here are the Google results for the number of usages of these, and associated phrases (just so you know I'm not making it up).


Old Man Morri said...

brilliant. can you research people who use the word 'ironic' and 'literally'

Then if you were to join my cult, we would have a wonderful job for you there.

Keith said...

Amen, brother! I have been shouting about this for a couple of years. How about "potential risk of danger"? Triply redundant! I think the motivation on the writer's part is to downplay the risks. A possible potential risk of danger sounds much more remote than "danger," doesn't it?

twisted mettle said...

Well said.

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