Should You Avoid Impact And Impactful?

The battle rages! Is impact a noun, a verb … or both?

And what about impactful? Is it even a word?

The American Heritage Dictionary points out that impact as a verb dates to the early 1600s. What happened between then and now?

Language evolves. Because so many among us dislike impact in verb form, instead preferring affect or influence, you as a writer must decide whether using phrases such as “Cutting prices will impact sales,” or “How will regulation impact water quality?” is worth the scrutiny.

In my online research, I discovered a reader who acknowledges that negative feelings about impact as a verb run deep:

I don’t want my readers thinking about my grammar, syntax, or American English. I want them thinking about my ideas. If the way I write — my choice of words, or my grammar or syntax — makes people stop thinking about my message and start thinking about my writing style, then I’m probably making things more problematic than is necessary.

I’m inclined to agree. Impact is widely understood and accepted as a noun, but impact as a verb still gets pushback.

Context, intent and your reading audience all matter. In editing a submission for an academic journal, for example, I likely would replace impact used as a verb with affect or influence.

In other scenarios, I would consider the connotation of impact, defined as: to come into forcible contact with another object; to have a strong effect on someone or something.

Does the writer want to imply a strong force?

The exploding shell impacted his hearing.
option: The exploding shell damaged his hearing.

Registrations were slightly impacted by population shifts.
note: Slightly and strong force contradict each other.
option: Registrations were slightly influenced by population shifts.
option: Registrations were slightly affected by population shifts.
option: Population shifts slightly affected registration.

Now let’s consider impactful, which Oxford dictionaries define as an adjective that means having a major impact or effect. Some dictionaries or style guides don’t list it at all, suggesting it isn’t a valid word.

The suffix -ful means full of: hopeful, doubtful, beautiful.

What is the implication of something impactful: something full of impact? Wouldn’t influential, effective or powerful do the job?

Her impactful comments about falling sales annoyed the staff.
option: Her powerful comments about falling sales annoyed the staff.

New research is impactful for cancer patients.
option: New research has a significant impact for cancer patients.

Two of the most impactful services for local residents were eliminated.
option: Two of the most effective services for local residents were eliminated.

Whether we like it or not, impact as a verb and impactful as an adjective have taken root in our vernacular. However, knowing the resistance many have to their use might be enough to convince us that we would be better off choosing alternatives.

If you work for an organization that has a style guide, that would be the perfect place to establish whether and when you consider impact or impactful acceptable corporate language.

And if you indeed work for an organization that strives to avoid impact as a verb or impactful as an adjective, I’d love to hear from you.

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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Kathy Watson
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