I’ll admit it: this one drives me more nuts than it should. When people say ‘potentially’ (and they say it far too often, in my opinion!) they usually mean ‘possibly’ – but the two words are not strictly interchangeable. If something is potential then it’s expected to happen in the future. If you ever studied physics, think of potential energy.
‘He was potentially murdered’ is illogical because the murder happened in the past. What the speaker (or writer) means is ‘He was possibly murdered’ or ‘He might have been murdered’.
‘Potentially’ is also one of those words people tend to throw in for padding. At best, it’s often redundant. Consider this: ‘If she’s late for work one more time, she could potentially get fired’. Take out ‘potentially’ and what happens? Your meaning remains clear, you’ve saved yourself from sounding officious, and you’ve made my day.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.