“Likely” and “Probable”

The words likely and probable both express the degree of probability of something occurring.

They’re not vague words. Vagueness is a function of borderline cases—at what point does someone become tall? It follows that vague words such as promptly and material require that you assess circumstances from the perspective of a reasonable person. By contrast, likely and probable aren’t a function of reasonableness.

Nevertheless, likely and probable exhibit uncertainty of a sort that makes them problematic. In this post I said that likely might indicate a degree of probability greater than five on a scale of one to ten, or it might mean something different. The same could be said for probable.

Not convinced? Consider the following:
“Although the term ‘likely’ connotes something more than a mere possibility, it also connotes something less than a probability or reasonable certainty.” State v. Green, 18 Ohio App. 3d 69, 72, 480 N.E.2d 1128, 1132 (1984).
“Probable and likely are synonyms.” Anderson v. Bell, 303 S.W.2d 93, 98 (Mo. 1957).
Given that two courts came to different conclusions regarding how likely relates to probable, I don’t think you can rely on any court to have a clear idea what one or the other word means.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.