While writing a medical article, in sources I used I encountered the phrase precipitating cause several times.

One of the definitions of to precipitate is:

to make something serious happen suddenly or more quickly than was expected

from: LDOCE

Having that definition in mind, one would expect that the phrase precipitating cause would be a pleonasm. However, there are quite a few examples of usage, even in texts not related to medicine. Is this a widespread misuse or is there an explanation why this phrase is correct?


Causality is a very broad concept, and many 'causes' may contribute to an event. (Aristotle argued that four distinct causes entered into the existence of any entity: its formal cause, its material cause, its efficient cause, and its final cause.)

In medicine, for example, the 'causes' of a disease may include the patient's genetic predisposition, her social situation and 'lifestyle' practices, and her immediate physical condition, including any other diseases present. In this context, the 'precipitating' cause is the agent or event whose influence is added to those of all the other 'causes' and overcomes the body's defenses, "pushing the patient over the edge" (note that this is essentially the same metaphor as 'precipitate') into a state of disease.

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    That's exactly the way I see it. This dictionary describes it with the word "trigger" that I believe holds the meat of the definition – i.e., the proximate causality the word "precipitating" refines "cause" with in the original phrase. – userr2684291 Mar 27 '17 at 11:47

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