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  1. newly available oil might potentially create a drop in prices.

VS

  1. newly available oil might create a drop in prices.

With me, I think both implying almost same meaning. What is the word "potentially" modifying?

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  • Your parse is incorrect.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 14:04

9 Answers 9

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In general, might potentially V is redundant for any verb V; the potentially is unnecessary. (Although, syntactically, potentially binds to V, it’s its juxtaposition with might that creates the redundancy.)

Sometimes either potentially or possibly is used with might V to emphasize the unlikelihood of the eventuality under discussion. But most of the time the construction might V without any modifiers conveys the intended meaning.

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  • 1
    Geez youse guys. I'd add that this "might potentially" construction is waffle-wording or politispeak and is more than redundant; it is not good English. Don't do this. "Might potentially perhaps someday possibly ... create" -- you get the idea.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 16:27
  • 8
    @Wastrel, part of me would be inclined to agree. But only an hour ago I heard myself start an utterance to my wife, “It could conceivably be…” Upon a moment’s consideration I realized that my sentence could be paraphrased “Conceivably, it is…” Stylistically, the paraphrase is likely preferable, but only the most uptight prescriptivist would dock me for my spontaneous utterance, which does fit my answer’s characterization as emphasizing unlikelihood. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 16:48
  • I think that's different. I have no problem with "could conceivably" because it is expressing your opinion; your mental processes are involved. It's not redundant. Someone else might not be able to conceive of the matter at hand without explanation, or might say that it is not conceivable to him ("I can't imagine that") or object that while conceivable it would be rare.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 14:21
  • On second thought, maybe it's not so different. Expressing a probability or possibility in English informally is hard.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 14:42
  • Redundancy has a long history in English of being used for emphasis ("I ain't seen nobody"), despite the protests of prescriptionists. Perhaps maybe that's what is going on in OP's example. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 17:55
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The two sentences are similar, but not the same.

In your first sentence, the word "potentially" modifies "create" and adds a nuance of unlikelihood to the possibility that oil will create a drop in prices.

Your second sentence, without "potentially", simply indicates that the oil may create a drop in prices, without any suggestion about how likely it is.

So while "potentially" isn't grammatically necessary in that sentence, it does add meaning, so it's not redundant.

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While they do seem similar, and in the end do say the same thing, it's not the same.

"Might" is only saying that it's POSSIBLE.

"Might potentially" however, says its possible, but also quite unlikely.

It's definitely very similar and I wouldn't use this to point out unlikeliness, however it is a way and it's not wrong either. There is no real difference made in the two sentences, however the 2nd one does point out how unlikely it is to happen.

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  • @RonJohn So you're saying "Might potentially" actually means there's a higher likeliness than when using "Might"? I'm a bit confused.
    – ema
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 7:25
  • Argh, I got it backwards... "Potentially might" sounds better to my native-speaker ears as even more unlikely than "might potentially".
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 13:22
  • @RonJohn I'm not a native speaker, and "Might potentially" for some reason sounds better to me.. But that's probably because I expect the adverb to come after the verb?
    – ema
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 13:32
  • 1
    I would disagree that "might potentially" means that the event is quite unlikely. Instead, "might potentially" means that the speaker is emphasizing that he/she is not saying that the event is likely.
    – LarsH
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 18:27
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potentially modifies create here. As might already indicates possibility, potentially is not needed, and your two examples have similar meanings.

2 used to say that something is possible We might get there before it rains.

newly available oil might (potentially) create a drop in prices.

might VERB is more than 1000 times more common than might potentially VERB, and hence I would choose the shorter version.

Ngram

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I don't think this is redundant. By using two words to indicate uncertainty, in a situation where there are two possible sources of uncertainty, you emphasise that both apply. So I would interpret version 1 to indicate that new oil might become available, and if so it might create a drop in prices.

Option 2 could also mean that new oil is available and might create a drop in prices, or that new oil might become available and would create a drop in prices.

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Here's another way to think about this. We use words to convey a range of probabilities. I assume this is true across languages. If asked out of context, I think that probably on its own means a probability of 60% or more. Might on its own would be less than 50% probability.

However, I may be an outlier. The dictionary definition of "probably" is very likely (Cambridge), almost certainly (Google), or to be expected, whatever that means (Merriam-Webster). I have a feeling that if you ask laypeople versus persons formally trained in probability (e.g. intelligence or financial analysts, statisticians, some physical sciences) what they think probably means, you would get different ranges.

Additionally, the meaning of the combination might potentially is unclear. Maybe the author was trying to convey a lower probability than might alone. However, there's no way to know this without knowing more context or the writer's usual habits. This is related to how filler words can be used to convey a speaker's uncertainty.

Most people aren't trained to systematically think about probability, and they may not pay strict attention to language and probability. However, in some contexts, e.g. writing for a financial newsletter, people should try to be more precise. The sentence sounds like it comes from a business column discussing finance. In addition to not being proper English, it is not best practice in that setting.

Some fields may have explicit guidance, as shown in this Wikipedia article which includes medicine, intelligence analysis, and some other fields. For example, "virtually certain" used by someone writing for the International Panel on Climate Change should denote a probability of at least 99%. An example sentence would be: I am virtually certain that no organization would endorse "might", "probably," or "might probably" as indicators of a range of probabilities. They are all too vague.

Related to vagueness, does probably mean 60%, 80%, or is the speaker risk averse and they were trying to say 95%? Does might mean 5% or 40%? Those are wide ranges of probability.

Here are some English phrases or words and what I think the associated probability ranges are when used by laypeople (remembering that I could be wrong).

Word/phrase Probability range
As likely as not, even odds about 50%
Perhaps, maybe, occasionally 10-40%
Doubtless, certainly, definitely, certain as the sun rising in the East 100%, but remember that the speaker could be wrong or exaggerating
Rarely, seldom, once in a blue moon 10% or less
Can't count them out, can't discount the chance that, can't rule out Probably also 10% or less, maybe less than the above
Hail Mary Refers to a maneuver or tactic with very low chance of success, most likely under 5%
Beyond a reasonable doubt (legal, criminal law) I think the meaning is almost certain, e.g. 99% or above
Preponderance of the evidence (legal, civil law) 51% or more
To the comfortable satisfaction of the panel (legal, used in some arbitration settings) Between the two above ranges, but there's probably debate in the legal community on the exact meaning
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I would see Option 2

newly available oil might create a drop in prices.

as a simple statement of what may happen. If there is new oil, there may be a drop in prices. This could be referring to general theory or a specific prediction.

While Option 1 sounds like it is saying that while in theory the drop in prices could occur, it is not thought likely this will happen.

newly available oil might potentially create a drop in prices. However with the current war situation prices could remain high.

Without further context of when the phrase was used or who was speaking it isn't possible to tell if that is a likely interpretation in this case.

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There isn't enough context in your examples to know if they're actually being used this way, but it is possible to use "might" and "might potentially" to mean different things.

"x might y" describes a condition that may occur, a definite possibility.

C is a pain-in-the-ass language. Even a mistake as simple as reading from an uninitialized variable might crash your program, because there's no possible way of knowing what's stored at that memory location unless it's explicitly initialized.

"x might possibly y", OTOH, describes a condition that may or may not exist, an in-definite possibility. It's most effective when used with qualifying statements that outline the conditions under which "might possibly" becomes "might".

Accessing an uninitialized variable in Python might possibly cause a program crash, unless the language has protections against that sort of thing.

(It does, so it won't. There's no such thing as an uninitialized variable in Python, because the only way to define a variable at all is by storing a value to it (aka initializing it). If you attempt to reference an undefined variable, you'll get a NameError: name 'foo' is not defined traceback. But that's a different situation than the classic C blunder of allocating storage for a variable, but forgetting to initialize it.)

To restate the latter as, "accessing an uninitialized variable in Python might cause a program crash" is to make the statement incorrect, because there is no actual potential for that condition to occur.

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  • And I'm now realizing I wrote this entire answer around "might possibly" instead of "might potentially", as the question originally asked. Now I have to decide whether I think "might possibly" and "might potentially" are the same thing.
    – FeRD
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 21:05
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I suggest that when in doubt, follow the money.

  1. newly available oil might create a drop in prices.

means that in a free market economy, an increase in oil supply might (and perhaps should if the theory is correct) cause a drop in prices if demand remains unchanged.

  1. newly available oil might potentially create a drop in prices.

means the there is a potential that the outcome would follow the same path as 2., and prices would drop if demand is steady. There is also a potential the price fixing cartels will fix the price such that no such thing happens, which IMHO would be the expected result.

In other words, although the wording of meaning 2. is tautological in its written form, it serves to reinforce the possibility that the outcome will not follow some kind of economic idealogical path.

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