Usage and Grammar
Q. In copyediting technical material, I often come across constructions such as “Results show that a potential source of chemical X may exist beneath building Y.” This sounds like hedging to me. Does one really need both the potential and the may? Wouldn’t either “Results show that a source of chemical X may exist beneath building Y” or “Results show that a potential source of chemical X exists beneath building Y” suffice?
A. Although academic writers sometimes overqualify their statements to the point of meaninglessness, two points are being made in your sentence: (1) a source may exist beneath the building, and (2) the source might yield chemical X. Your first revision is probably OK, although it is not as clear as the original, but the second revision changes the meaning, since it states that a substance is definitely under the building. In short, the original is clearest.