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Oh, the impact

In the cutthroat world of professional copy editing, being seen as an authority carries risk.

Some months ago, at the afternoon news meeting, Tim Franklin, the editor of The Sun, commented that a particular story seemed “impactful.” He paused, quizzically, and addressed the room at large while looking at me: “Is impactful a word?”

Now, he plainly did not mean the question literally. Everyone in the room understood what he said and meant, recognizing impactful as a back-formation from impact. What he was asking was whether impactful is a legitimate word, an acceptable word in standard English.

Answering the intended question rather than the literal one, I said, “No.”

It would have been better to give the labored, technical explanation, because he spent some time later on the Internet, announcing gleefully that dictionary.com carried an entry for impactful. “How about that?” he asked me.

No doubt the people at dictionary.com are model citizens who wipe their feet before coming indoors and who are kind to their mothers, but I’m skeptical of their lexicography.  So I did a little research of my own and was permitted to address the afternoon news meeting thus the next day:

“I have a prepared statement.

“I will not take questions afterward.

“The word impactful, which appears in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary and online as an entry from Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, is not listed in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the American Heritage College Dictionary, the Encarta World English Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Given the dubious status of the word impact as a verb, which several authorities recommend against, and the lack of citations for impactful in standard references, The Sun’s copy desk affirms yesterday’s curbside ruling of its chief that impactful may be used in direct quotes, if the writer insists on it, but not otherwise in the paper. This decision remains in effect until the word achieves a more secure purchase on the language, or the A.M.E./Copy Desk is overruled by Higher Authority.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:56 PM | | Comments (18)
        

Comments

Bravo, John! You've successfully stopped them from ever asking you anything ever again! :-D (Just kidding. . .)

As one of my old bosses used to say, "It's in the dictionary, but that doesn't mean you have to use it."

Be glad your colleague didn't come back with "impactitudinous."

Perhaps "impactive" would have been a bit better. There is more precedent for that than for "impactful." But it would probably still have raised some eyebrows.

It’s important to note that not all “legitimate” words have their own separate listings in dictionaries. There is considerable latitude within standard English to accessorize and modify words with prefixes and suffixes and such.

And of course "Impact" as a verb is a well-established usage that goes back more than 400 years. Stylebook proscriptions to the contrary are without merit.

We should bear in mind, too, that "impact" -- whether noun, verb or what have you -- was itself "not a word" until somebody "made it up." All words that we use today have a common property: There was a time, however long ago, when there was “no such word.”

You can make a case for using almost any word based on someone having used it sometime. The real question is, has it been admitted into standard English, which so many of us use to communicate with the unspoken understanding that we are reliable persons and worth being listened to. I think my job as a copy editor requires me to hear and understand whatever trash people are spewing, but to drag my heels when asked to accept it in my own writing. I figure that the beauty of dictionaries is that the editors have spent more time reading than I do (I have to spend too much time deciphering the argot my daughter speaks just to annoy me) and have a better sense of what to trust -- so I rely on them. The alternative is, if not madness, then gibberish.

>The alternative is, if not madness, then gibberish.

Oh, for heaven's sake. Does this mean that languages without a written authority are gibberish? Um, balderdash.

The problem, if I may continue, with this type of sentiment ("then gibberish") is that it undermines the credibility of the statement on its face. If one wants to argue for the benefits of standardized language and lexicon, arguing that the alternative is linguistic chaos is counter-productive. Thousands -- tens of thousands -- of languages have worked perfectly fine without the need for, for example, a written language and certainly for a dictionary. Using "impactful" is not gibberish; it's an alternative that for various reasons, entirely social and zero percent linguistic, is considered substandard in some circles (only). To argue that it's in some way unclear or not useful, or to pronounce that a term is the ever-popular and overworn "not a word," is to do nothing more than show that one fundamentally does not understand how one's own native language is used (or even works, either grammatically or evolutionarily). Moreover it reveals a deep streak of snobbishness that suggests that the speaker believes that anyone not up to the speaker's idiosyncratic and markedly non-democratic standards is an incapable user of the language, and communicates in "gibberish." (Why not just go ahead and call it "grunts," then?)

Leave "impact-the-verb" and all variants thereon to the poets and the government.

Sign me,

Covers too many local gov't meetings. Sees too many state gov't press releases.

The word "Impact" in place of "Effect" or "Affect" is probably the most annoying sounding faux-pas in the English language. But the government and news media love it for some reason.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'd never heard this beastly word until coming to work in Washington, DC. It sounds like nails on a blackboard everytime I hear it. And I hear it way to often. At least I now have your essay to show my coauthors when we have the inevitable argument.

I heard this word many times last night on "Undercover Millionaire". The user was a woman who did what appeared to be motivational speaking. I'm not the greatest grammarian on earth, but I know what makes me crazy and nouns-turned-into-adjectives makes me crazy!
Thank you. I feel better.

Cheer up, Leann. There is no obligation on a newspaper to admit every newfangled contraption into its columns of course, but on the other hand there is nothing particularly blackboardy or crazemaking about impactful: noun+ful is, after all, a standard method of making adjectives. Beautiful, colourful, careful, sorrowful, dutiful, tactful, etc etc.

I wonder what the English language would look like today if you had your ways with Shakespeare...

Imagine my surprise when I received instructions from my boss yesterday to write something in "plain, impactful English."

What a chuckle I had while reading this! Bravo for taking a stand for correctness.
Not much longer before we're all replaced by Social Media. Then what will classrooms become?
The future, murky it is, always changing.
I pray we all somehow survive.

Thanks for fighting the good fight, even if the battle has been lost since this was originally posted. It's not about technical parameters of what qualifies as a word, it's about beauty, and "impactful" is definitely not beautiful.

What constitutes a word will always be determined by usage, not by the opinions of certain self-appointed guardians of that dubious state termed "correct usage." It really doesn't matter what any of you linguistical snobs say to the contrary; this has always been, and will always be, the way language works.

And that's what's truly impactful in this discussion.

What's all this about impactful? I think if a word gets inventified by a cleverful person, then she/he can utilate it. Especially when everybody comprehendizes the meaning. I most positively believe that all you fine fancy gentlemen are overstuffulated with your egos. It's very annoyanceful!

(Apologies to Emily Latella of SNL and to Mayella Ewell of TKAM.)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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