I’ll impact you

Posted on February 7, 2012


From a piece I did three years ago.


When something like this happens, I'll accept a newspaper story using the verb "impact." Until then, however, STFU!

A search of Google News shows that in the last 24 hours there have been almost 800 articles with the phrase “impacted on.” That means that in one day alone, almost 800 news stories have gone out of their way to irritate me.

That’s a lot of irritation. And it doesn’t even count “will impact” (almost 5,000) and “have impacted” (almost 800).

I know, I know. There is nothing grammatically wrong with using “impact” as a verb. The American Heritage Dictionary takes great pains to point this out, noting that “[i]mpact has been used as a verb since 1601, when it meant ‘to fix or pack in,’ and its modern, figurative use dates from 1935.” Of course, the 1601 use had a very distinct meaning — and should any of these news reports be talking about dentistry or meteor strikes I’ll let it go. But they’re not.

Here are a few examples:

  • “… and also impacted on the work of Otis Redding”
  • “Sustainability also impacted on shoppers’ choices…”
  • “This in turn has impacted on the spending power, …”
  • “The results are also impacted on translation into euros at a significantly weaker rand rate”

This is nothing but bad writing by over-inflated egos. Consider the same phrases with the word “affected” rather than its bombastic cousin, “impact”:

  • “… and also affected the work of Otis Redding”
  • “Sustainability also affected shoppers’ choices…”
  • “This in turn has affected the spending power, …”
  • “The results affect translation into euros at a significantly weaker rand rate”

While it may not improve the writing, it at least strips away the insufferable pretentiousness.

Even better, however, is to use verbs that actually help articulate the idea being put forth:

  • “… and also shaped the work of Otis Redding”
  • “Sustainability also dictates shoppers’ choices…”
  • “This in turn has undermined the spending power, …”

You will note that the fourth example isn’t included here. That’s because it doesn’t need either “affect” or “impact”:

  • Original: “The results are also impacted on translation into euros at a significantly weaker rand rate”
  • Improved: “The results also translate into euros at a significantly weaker rand rate”
  • Even better: “This results in euros at a significantly weaker rand rate.”

The American Heritage Dictionary writers seem puzzled, almost insulted, by the fact that so many of us find this usage of “impact” objectionable. “It is unclear,” they whine, “why this usage provokes such a strong response, but it cannot be because of novelty.”

Fine — so the verb form of impact has been around since the 17th century, and it’s figurative form since 1935. But it’s only recently that it’s become a mandatory part of almost every utterance!

Happily, despite their attempt to legitimize its usage, the AHD is forced to admit that even their own Usage Panel detests it. “Eighty-four percent of the Usage Panel,” it says, “disapproves of the construction ‘to impact on,’ as in the phrase ‘social pathologies, common to the inner city, that impact heavily on such a community;’ fully 95 percent disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb in the sentence, ‘Companies have used disposable techniques that have a potential for impacting our health.’”

Despite this near-unanimous condemnation by its own panel, the dictionary still predicts that because “the verbal use of impact has become so common in the working language of corporations and institutions” that “the verb will eventually become as unobjectionable as ‘contact’ is now, since it will no longer betray any particular pretentiousness on the part of those who use it.”

Well, they may be right. But a growing number of seminars, tutorials, books and websites are urging speakers and writers to drop the use of the verbal “impact” in order to make their communications clearer and more understandable. And to stop the speaker from looking like a twat.

A couple of decades ago it looked like the word “irregardless” was going to become an accepted part of English, but a million voices raised in condemnation relegated the bastard word to its rightful place as a marker of ignorance and illiteracy. Although “impact” may technically be a verb, its common (and unbearably constant) use can similarly be stopped if enough of us follow two simple rules.

  1. Stop using it ourselves, and
  2. Throw rotten vegetables at anyone else who uses it.

I’d suggest three-week-old tomatoes. They impact nicely.