Risk vs. Threat

“Be brave.  Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.”

Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., an American activist

Both risk and threat are about some unpleasant or even dangerous things. But they are different. How? Do you feel it? Read on to put the feeling into words and also learn some useful vocabulary to talk about risks and threats.

RISK

Risk (countable/uncountable) is the possibility that something unpleasant or dangerous might happen (Macmillan Dictionary):

The risk of global economic losses continues to grow.

You’re at risk of developing a secondary infection.

This presents a great risk that innocent people will be killed.

The equipment posed no health risk to visitors or operators.

Risk is always a countable noun if you mean someone or something that is likely to be a danger or problem in the future:

It’s a risk to both the mother and the child.

The mercury content of tuna poses a health riskparticularly to women of childbearing age.

There is a fire risk (there is something that could cause a fire).

You are a risk (you pose a risk).

THREAT

Threat (countable/uncountable) is a situation or an activity that could cause harm or danger (Macmillan Dictionary):

Terrorist networks forged in the conflicts of today could pose a threat for decades to come.

Poverty degrades humanity and is a threat to the most basic of all human rights.

It is a threat to reproductive health.

Threat is always countable if you mean someone who might defeat you or might cause problems for you:

They are a threat to civilians and military alike.

Just like risk, threat can mean the possibility of something bad. But a risk is often a potential danger that arises because of your* own actions, while a threat is a potential danger that arises from external circumstances.

Constant threat of attack makes everyday life dangerous here (someone causes the danger, but not us).  In certain regions of the world, there is a constant risk of hydrocarbon pollution (the population of the regions might have something to do with this).

We have to take action to avert the threat of pollution from ship-generated waste. It was found that the East Asian coastal areas are particularly at risk of pollution from land-based sources. (in this case you may choose “threat” or “risk” depending on how you treat the situation – whether it’s an external thing or not; in this particular situation the difference is not significant)

*It’s not always about a particular person. For example, in the sentence In certain regions of the world, there is a constant risk of hydrocarbon pollution, it’s not a problem of one person, not a responsibility of one individual, but the whole population of the area.

COMMON EXPRESSIONS

When if comes to synonyms, usually there are some set expressions to remember. Here are a few common risk and threat ones:

  1. To make good on a threat – to do or pay what you have said you would: The UN should make good on its threat and impose sanctions against the government of the country. We’ve got 24 hours before he makes good on his threat to reveal that list. She’s not going to be able to make good on her threat – she is not that crazy!
  2. Do it at your own risk – be responsible for any harm or damage that you suffer as a result: No one is sure this software is good, so use it at your own risk. It may contain bugs, so use of this tool is at your own risk.
  3. Idle threat = empty threat (a threat that is not serious): They say they’ll do it, and it doesn’t sound liken idle threat. Don’t think for a minute that was an empty threat he made.
  4. To take a risk – to do something although you know that something unpleasant or dangerous could happen: No one will want to take the risk of a lawsuit. I didn’t want to take the risk of leaving the kids alone. 
  5. Never make a threat you cannot carry out (proverb): I hate you! I’ll destroy you! – Never make a threat you cannot carry out!
  6. Calculated risk – a risk that you take after carefully considering the possible results: Calculated risk is critical to great discoveries. That’s a calculated risk
  7. Under the threat of something – being threatened: Humankind continues to live in insecurity under the threat of nuclear weapons. There are now more than 800 million people living under the threat of starvation.
  8. To risk your life/neck – to do something very dangerous, especially something that could injure or kill you: Honey, I swear on my mother’s life, I will never risk my neck again. I risk my neck for no man. The officer risked his life to save the drowning man.
  9. To risk life and limb /lɪm/ – to be put, or to put yourself, in physical danger: Something is seriously wrong when people risk life and limb traveling in suffocating containers to Western Europe in search of a better life. Today we pay our respects to the brave men and women who risk life and limb every day to keep our country safe.
  10. To be at risk – to be vulnerable, likely to be lost or damaged: Some plants are more at risk of frost than others. Up to 25,000 jobs are still at risk.

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