There could potentially be too many modals here

People often write or say ‘could potentially’ when just ‘could’ by itself is enough. For example, some people say ‘it could potentially rain’, instead of saying ‘it could rain’. Both these both modal expressions—the modal verb ‘can’ and the modal adverb ‘potentially’—express uncertainty. If we use one of them, the other is redundant.

In this post I discuss the following:

  • ‘Potentially’ as an intensifier of ‘could’?
  • How long have people being using ‘could potentially’?
  • Is ‘could potentially’ just replacing ‘could possibly’?
  • Potentially or possibly
  • Using ‘could’
  • An Americanism?

‘Potentially’ as an intensifier of ‘could’?

There could be a legitimate reason to use both modal expressions together. This duplicated expression of uncertainty could act as an intensifier, reinforcing the message of uncertainty and implying that the likelihood is lower than in either expression alone.

Nevertheless, I don’t think using ‘potentially’ as an intensifier of ‘could’ succeeds in practice. Among those people saying or writing ‘could potentially’, most use it so often that they don’t distinguish between ‘could potentially’ (lower likelihood) and ‘could’ (higher likelihood).  

As a result, listeners and readers can’t tell whether the speaker (or writer) intends ‘could potentially’ as an intensifier.

How long have people being using ‘could potentially’?

My impression is that ‘could potentially’ is a fairly new phrase and is becoming more common. To check that impression, I prepared figure 1 (and the others below), using the Google Books NGRAM viewer, at https://books.google.com/ngrams/

Figure 1 shows how often the sequence ‘could potentially’ occurs in the database from 1920 to 2019. It shows that ‘could potentially’ hardly occurred at all before 1940. Its use then rose slowly until 1960, before rising more quickly, at a rate that continues today.

Figure 1. NGRAM. Could potentially, from 1920

Using NGRAM viewer
I used the default settings for all the figures in this post: English corpus [ie the whole database, not sub-divided into, for example, British English and American English], case insensitive, smoothing of 3.

NGRAM viewer gives a quick and dirty view of trends, but there are many limitations, making it unwise to draw precise conclusions without detailed analysis, which I haven’t performed. A paper that discusses some of the limitations and pitfalls of using NGRAM viewer is Guideline for improving the reliability of Google Ngram studies: Evidence from religious terms, by Nadja Younes and Ulf-Dietrich Reips (2019), at https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0213554

Is ‘could potentially’ just replacing ‘could possibly’?

A near synonym for ‘could potentially’ is ‘could possibly’. Figure 2 is an NGRAM showing their frequencies.

Figure 2. NGRAM. Could potentially (red), could possibly (blue)

Figure 2 reveals several things:

  • ‘could possibly’ has always been more common than ‘could potentially’.
  • the frequency of ‘could possibly’ fell steadily from 1800 to 1940, reaching a plateau lasting from 1940 to 1970.
  • ‘could possibly’ then entered a new decline from 1970 to around 1994, accompanied by a continued rise in ‘could potentially’. Although ‘could possibly’ was still much more common than ‘could potentially’, ‘could potentially’ would by now have overtaken ‘could possibly’ if the 1970-1994 trends had continued.
  • from around 1994, there was then a bounceback in ‘could possibly’, though ‘could potentially’ carried on rising.
  • ‘could possibly’ may have reached a new plateau around 2013. ‘could potentially’ went on rising, but it rose slightly more slowly after 2008.

To some extent, ‘could potentially’ has been replacing ‘could possibly’ since 1960, but ‘could possibly’, though in decline since 1800, is still the more frequent of the 2 expressions. Nevertheless, I don’t think the rise of ‘could potentially’ is just due to replacement of ‘could possibly’:

  • ‘could possibly’ was already in decline in 1800, long before the ascent of ‘could potentially’ started around 1960.
  • ‘could potentially’ has continued to rise since 1994 even though the use of ‘could possibly’ has also been increasing over this period.

Potentially or possibly

I dislike the expression ‘could potentially’ because it is redundant (unless ‘potentially’ is used to intensify the meaning of low likelihood present in ‘could’). But I have another reason for disliking ‘could potentially’. To my ear, ‘potentially’ sounds bureaucratic, pompous, stilted, ugly and jargony. In most cases, ‘possibly’ would do just as well, and sounds—in my view—more natural.  

Figure 3 shows how the frequency of ‘potentially’ and ‘possibly’ have changed over time:

  • ‘potentially’ was little used until 1900. There was a steady increase in its use from 1900 until now, with a steeper rise between 1960 and 1980.
  • ‘possibly’ has always been used more often than ‘potentially’. Its use fell from 1800 to 1840, then rose back to around the original level by 1920, before falling steeply from 1960 to around 1995. At that time, it looked like ‘potentially’ would become more common than ‘possibly’ within 15 years, but then use of ‘possibly’ started rebounding to regain the original level today.
Figure 3. NGRAM. Potentially (red), possibly (blue)

Using ‘could’

As a final step, figure 4 compares the frequencies of ‘could’, ‘possibly’ and ‘potentially’ since 1800. It shows that the modal verb ‘could’ has always been much more frequent than both of the modal adverbs ‘possibly’ and ‘potentially’.

Interestingly, there was a steady decline in the frequency of ‘could’ from 1800 to 1920. Usage was then steady until 2000, at which point there was a sharp increase in frequency. I haven’t investigated why these changes happened, or whether they are connected with the long-term decline in the frequency of ‘could possibly’.

Figure 4. NGRAM. Could (green), possibly (blue), potentially (red)

An Americanism?

My impression is that the growing use of ‘potentially’ may have started west of the Atlantic. However, I looked separately at the American English and British English frequencies on NGRAM viewer and could see no clear difference between them. So my hunch that this may be an Americanism is (at best) unproven.

I also suspect that ‘potentially’ may be more common in scientific, technical and academic usage, but I haven’t investigated that.

Describing probable but unlikely events in accounting
I discussed above whether ‘could potentially’ sometimes signals a low probability. I have written before about terms used in accounting to describe how likely an event is. https://accountingmiscellany.com/saying-how-likely-something-is-2

Conclusion

I recommend that people don’t use ‘could potentially’:

  • If people intend ‘potentially’ to be understood as intensifying ‘could’, emphasising a low probability that something will happen, listeners (and readers) may not pick up that intention. That is because many people have bleached the meaning from ‘potentially’ by over-using ‘could potentially’.
  • If people don’t intend ‘potentially’ to be understood as an intensifier, it is redundant because it duplicates ‘could’.

Strangely, although ‘could potentially’ is still more common than ‘could possibly’, I have much less concern about ‘could possibly’. To my ear, ‘possibly’ still acts clearly as an intensifier in ‘could possibly’ and—unlike ‘potentially in ‘could potentially’—its meaning has not become bleached.

Finally, I still much prefer ‘possibly’ to ‘potentially, though this may just the personal preference of a linguistic dinosaur.   

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