Words that should be banned: impact

Oh, I’m perfectly happy for you to use the word “impact”.

If, that is, you’re writing a paper on ballistics, a police report about a car crash, or a summary of theories of how the dinosaurs were wiped out.

But use it to describe anything other than one object coming forcibly into contact with another, and I’ll dismiss you as an illiterate fool.

Let me give you some examples. A recent letter to the FT had the headline:

Impact of ‘fluffy’ businesses will grow

Question: can something fluffy have an impact?

And how about this headline from the British Dental Journal website:

Perceptions of how the Internet has impacted on dentistry

You’d think dentists would avoid the use of the word “impacted”, given its associations with painful – and possibly infected – wisdom teeth.

Worse still, this example demonstrates another thing I hate about “impact” – it’s one of those verbs to which unnecessary prepositions tend to adhere.

The following is from a leaflet I picked up at my local beauty spa.

If you arrive late for any appointment we will try to service you to the best of our ability, but cannot let the following client be impacted.

Sounds to me like they need to include colonic irrigation in their list of treatments for such eventualities. Oh, and while we’re at it, “service” me? Isn’t that something you’d do to a car?

I have a theory about why there’s so much impacting going on – and it’s this: “impact” can be used as either a verb or a noun. And that makes it a highly useful word for people too lazy to learn the difference between the verb “affect” and the noun “effect”.

Replace every use of “impact” in the above examples with “affect” or “effect” and I guarantee each sentence will instantly be more pleasing to the sensitive ear.

Here’s an example that, I think, proves my point:

‘Hutton will affect BBC charter’

The Hutton report will impact on the renewal of the BBC’s charter, said Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell.

Here, I’m fairly sure the headline and the first paragraph were written by two different people.

The headline is the work of a linguistically informed, sensitive-eared sub-editor who knows the difference between “affect” and “effect”.

The first paragraph is the work of the reporter, who was either too time-pressed to make the distinction, or perhaps wanted to capture Ms Jowell’s original words.

To avoid being thought of as illiterate by grumpy bloggers, here’s a clever mnemonic to call on whenever you’re tempted to use the word “impact”: RAVEN.

It stands for:

Remember, Affect is a Verb and Effect is a Noun

Of course, it only works if you know the difference between a verb and a noun, which, sad to say, isn’t universal these days.

But that’s for another post.

14 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    So, so true. I wonder why “impact” became so fashionable in business writing. Perhaps because it sounds dramatic and forceful. But as you point out, we have plenty of better words to choose from. “Impact” is not only the wrong word, it is a vague wrong word.

    “Perceptions of how the Internet has impacted on dentistry …”

    What does that mean, exactly? Changed dentistry? Influenced dentistry? Improved dentistry? It’s not telling us anything “affected” wouldn’t tell us, that’s for sure.

  2. Brad, I think you might have a point about the macho-sounding nature of “impact” being a reason for its popularity in business – rather like those other corporate favourites “deliver”, “drive” and the very war-like “objectives”.

  3. Chris says:

    It’s a bloody ugly word, too. And the name of an inelegant font.

  4. Yes, you’re right, Chris – too many consonant clusters for such a little word.

  5. Dave says:

    “consonant clusters” interesting. Maybe we can get the UN to sign up to a consonant cluster non-proliferation treaty.

  6. Except, Dave, I fear that will only prompt them to explore different ways to annoy us writers.

    See recent Daily Mash article: http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/international/100-nations-agree-to-kill-people-differently-200812041439/

  7. Clare,

    Good post.

    I’m sure I’ve misapplied the word “impact” before, probably often. It’s true, though; “affect” and “effect” make more sense in most cases.

    Your third sentence offers a good way to remember whether or not to use “impact”: only if you’re describing “one object coming forcibly into contact with another.”

  8. Thanks, Jesse. Yes, it’s a very easy habit to fall into, isn’t it? That’s why I felt a need to blog about it – as a reminder to myself as much as anyone!

  9. Ma Seungtaek says:

    Interesting post. I have to admit I never batted an eyelid at the word “impact”. But now that I’ve read your post, if ever I have an urge to “impact on” something, I’ll try to “affect” it instead.

    “Remember, Affect is a Verb and Effect is a Noun”…

    … Except when “effect” means to cause something or carry out an action.
    E.g. “The drug effected an increase in serum macrophage levels”
    versus “The drug affected serum macrophage levels.

  10. Yes, thanks for pointing out that distinction. Perhaps I need to do a follow-up post for advanced students!

  11. shannon says:

    Know what word I hate? Impactful. It’s for people who aren’t satisfied with “impact” as a so-so noun and really bad verb.

    Impactfully yours,

  12. chris says:

    I got this link from a friend at work today. ‘impact’ didn’t make it on this list. There are some heinous words and phrases in there though.


  13. Thanks, Chris. A very nice list, and I agree with them all!

  14. […] Impact (verb) – as you will know by now, most of the time this word is used by people who are too lazy to learn the difference between “affect” and “effect”. […]

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