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.”