A Word, Please: Don't let language cops impact your words

There are a lot of people out there who will think less of you if you use “impact” as a verb: A longer storm season will negatively impact tourism. Failure to study will negatively impact your grades. Technology will impact higher education.

Those are wrong, wrong and wrong, according to certain people.

Because they only recognize impact as a noun, some people would require you to say instead that a longer storm season will have a negative impact on tourism, failure to study will have a negative impact on your grades, technology will have an impact on higher education. In all these examples, impact is a noun. That's different from “Technology will impact higher education,” where impact is a verb.

For more than half a century, people have complained that any time you use a noun as a verb you're committing an error that actually causes the noun to lose its — I'll say it — impact.

For example, in a 1986 column on the word “impact,” New York Times writer William Safire said “the former noun has been used so often in bored rooms that ‘impact on' has lost its punch.”

(Actually, I'm skeptical that he meant bored rooms instead of boardrooms. Weirder typos have happened. But the version I read did have “bored.”)

Safire wasn't alone in his views on the word “impact.” Nor has this idea fallen by the wayside. It's just as popular today as it was in the 1980s to take serious umbrage with anyone using impact as a verb.

A big part of their objection is the principle of the thing. Nouns are nouns, darn it, and using them as verbs debases the words themselves and the language as a whole. And this, in a nutshell, is why you should never take self-appointed language cops too seriously. They almost never bother to get their facts straight.

Here's the truth: Impact was a verb before it was a noun. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, it evolved first as a verb straight from the past participle of a Latin verb that also gave us impinge. And the first documented use of impact as a verb dates back to the year 1601 — centuries before people like Safire claimed the verb was an abomination emerging before their eyes.

True, for a couple of centuries after the verb evolved into a noun, the noun form was a lot more popular. But then, around the start of the 1980s, the verb form started getting popular again. And that's when people assumed that it was a new development and leapt to condemn it.

Today, not only is impact a verb, but Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary considers that its main job. Here's one of Webster's definitions of the verb form: “to have a direct effect or impact on; impinge on.”

This definition blasts another common objection to “impact”: the idea that it should not be used in a figurative sense to mean an effect or a change, as in how studying impacts grades, but should instead be used in a more literal way to mean a striking or smashing into something, as in how an asteroid would smash into the Earth. But there's no reason to worry about this criticism, either. The word has both physical and abstract meanings, and they're all fine.

The only reason you should ever worry about how you use impact is if you think an uninformed person might be judging you — say, in a school paper or business document. In those cases, the safe course is to stick with the noun form. But even then, it's your choice. You can use “impact” in pretty much any way that comes naturally.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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