Deep impact

If you don’t like words being moved from one grammatical category to another, then you’ll hate ‘impact’.

In the 17th and 18th centuries it was a verb – yes, originally it was a verb – meaning to press or pack in tightly. By the late 18th, there was a noun form too, meaning an impinging or a collision. The verb form seems to have pretty much died out by the 19th century, during which a figurative noun sense appeared, meaning an effect.

The literal and figurative nouns gradually picked up steam and are still going strong, but in the first half of the 20th century new verb forms appeared too: a literal sense meaning to come forcibly into contact and then a figurative one meaning to affect.

It’s this last usage, which has only really taken off since the 1960s, that draws the most ire these days.

Let’s have some examples, all from the BBC News website:

(1) It is feared the cold spell will have an impact on the main outdoor crop of Jersey Royal potatoes, which are planted from January onwards.
(2) Campaigners said the figure pointed to a huge public health problem that impacted on thousands of families.
(3) The region is still facing the same global issues, such as the eurozone crisis, that impacted its growth in the past year.

I think that (1) is fine if a bit dry, (2) is tolerable but unattractive, and (3) is painfully bureaucratic. But, as my colleague Danny once said, my opinion is statistically insignificant. So what’s the bigger picture?

Here are Google Books Ngrams for ‘had an impact on the’, ‘impacted on the’ and ‘impacted the’ – for British English:

impact BrE

And American English:

impact AmE

Clearly, the verb form is pretty common – more so in the US than the UK. Another difference is in whether the verb is transitive (without a preposition) or intransitive (with one, typically ‘on’): Brits tend to favour the intransitive, while Americans strongly favour the transitive.

(That said,  in the passive voice, the transitive is the norm on both sides of the Atlantic. Even if I don’t like ‘was impacted by’, I have to admit it’s much better than ‘was impacted on by’ – for which Google Books has no search results.)

Usage guides range from sceptical to hostile.

The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel (in 2001) strongly rejected the verb. Used figuratively, intransitive ‘impact’ was opposed by 85% and transitive by 80%. Even when used literally (“meteors have impacted the lunar surface”), 66% were opposed.

Bryan Garner (2009) rates transitive and intransitive ‘impact’ as stage 3 on his language-change index (“commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage”). He recommends not using ‘impact’ as a verb, but says: “These uses of the word would be perfectly acceptable if impact were performing any function not as ably performed by affect or influence.” This puzzles me: why is a pair of near-synonyms OK but a trio not?

Robert Burchfield (1996) makes no objection to the usage but notes that other people do. “It therefore seems advisable to refrain from using the verb in ordinary non-scientific and non-medical contexts—at least for the present. It is very likely that it will pass into uncontested standard use as time goes on. At present it has something of the air of a guest who has turned up at a party uninvited.”

Looking further back, HW Fowler (1926) doesn’t consider the possibility of ‘impact’ as a verb, but still finds a controversy: “impact (n.) means the striking of one thing against another and, by extension, its effect on the object struck. Used figuratively in this last sense, it has become a vogue word.” He disparages the vogue.

But his complaints have been swept away by history. And looking at the Ngrams, the figurative verb forms are becoming more and more standard. No amount of griping will undo this.

How much griping is there? Certainly much less than among the capable but unrepresentative American Heritage panel 12 years ago. This is just the sort of thing I’d like to see a broader survey cover. But as there hasn’t been one, this has to be a judgement call: how linguistically conservative is your audience?

Finally: I noticed in my example-hunting that figurative uses of ‘impact’ – noun or verb – are overwhelmingly negative in implication, unlike the neutrality of ‘effect’, ‘affect’ and ‘influence’. Impacts and impacting are mostly bad. Let’s hope that’s not an omen.

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  • ProsWrite  On March 21, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Reblogged this on Pros Write and commented:
    A nice lesson on usage, language change, dialects, and more!

  • Nigel Grant  On March 22, 2013 at 11:24 am

    The main problem with using “impact” as a verb is that it’s a blunt instrument. People often use it as a catch-all synonym for all sorts of more precise and nuanced verbs. True, the implication is often negative, so readers sense the meaning, but the word is often a poor substitute for something more specific. E.g. “The bank’s collapse impacted savers’ confidence” is vague.

    • kitchenmudge  On April 15, 2013 at 4:00 am

      I second what Nigel Grant says: the transitive verb “impact” is simply lazy, and probably used by people with limited vocab, and those who could never figure out how to use “affect”.

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