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To help with my English, I occasionally use Grammarly. I was writing a text today which included the following phrase:

This has the double benefit of making you aware of areas that have potential for improvement while also increasing... [cont]

Grammarly highlighted the word potential and says the following:

The noun phrase potential seems to be missing a determiner before it. Consider adding an article.

And suggested swapping it for the potential or a potential.

Now both suggestions seem wrong to me, however I'd be the first to acknowledge my lack of grammar "smarts" (hence the use of Grammarly!).

Which (if any) of these is the correct use, and what is the background?

  • Surely, potential is not a countable noun? – Weather Vane Mar 4 at 18:45
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Grammarly is overcorrecting here; the sentence is fine as it is.

A native English speaker certainly might say "areas that have the potential for improvement"; no native speaker would say "a potential" with potential functioning as a noun. (As Jeff Morrow's answer notes, "a potential improvement" would be perfectly sensible, because the article goes with the whole noun and "potential" is an adjective in that scenario.)

I would feel perfectly comfortable eliding "the" without worrying about appearing ungrammatical.

If you wanted to make it seem weaker or stronger, you might say "that have some potential for improvement" or "that have great potential for improvement".

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    I am going to upvote your answer even though I believe your stricture against the indefinite article is too strong. – Jeff Morrow Mar 4 at 19:10
  • @JeffMorrow: You make a good point that as an adjective it is perfectly reasonable to precede it with an article. – Eric Lippert Mar 4 at 19:27
  • What about It has a certain potential? I would say the indefinite article is far more likely—and potential is being used as a noun. – Jason Bassford Mar 4 at 22:09
  • @JasonBassford: That's a good point. I'd say "it has a certain potential" sounds very natural to me but "it has certain potential" sounds unnatural. "That idea has small potential to change minds" sounds natural, but "That idea has a small potential to change minds" sounds odd and "the small potential" sounds very unnatural. This is a deeper problem than I thought; I wonder if there is a general rule here, or if it is all just arbitrary? – Eric Lippert Mar 4 at 22:36
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"Potential" can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it is hard to consider it a count noun. If "potential" is being used as a mass noun, no article is required.

I gave her water

mass noun

I gave her a book

count noun

If, however, "potential" is being used as an adjective, whether a determiner is needed depends on the noun being modified and its number.

We have potential oppurtunity to ...

is wrong.

We have a potential oppurtunity to ...

is correct, as is

We have potential opportinities to ...

In the sentence quoted, it is possible to read "potential" as a mass noun or as an adjective modifying an implied plural count noun such as "opportunities." In both those cases, the lack of an article is correct.

Notice that your site suggested that you consider adding an article. I would not add one, but I certainly would not say that adding one is wrong.

EDIT: I see that a different answer has suggested that no article is preferable, but if an article is added, only the definite article is acceptable. I am not sure I quite agree with that. I do agree that the definite article would be far more common. For example,

There is a potential opportunity for improvement

is obviously fine. I think that could be condensed into

There is a potential for improvement.

I do not like it, but a native speaker might say it. As indicated above, I prefer either

There is potential for improvement

or

There is a potential opportinity for improvement.

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