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.