Sunday, August 29, 2010

The impact of impacting and affecting the effect: Another rhetorical concession

At some point in the not too distant past I was involved in a conversation where an elderly quasi-linguistic stickler was arguing about the use of "impact" in the context that it has come to be used in contemporary parlance. He was firmly in the camp that "impact" connotes only a collision; it involves something smashing into something else, period. Also, it's not a verb; it's a noun, period. That's what he was taught in his youth (many, many years ago) and that's how it remains in his mind.

For anyone paying attention to modern usage it's obvious that "impact" is employed as a verb and connotes merely "have an effect"—with perhaps the implication that it may be an effect of more than modest significance. It may carry the implication of carrying the weight of something greater than when one would say "effect," but need not involve a literal crash.

However, having been taught to respect elders (and acknowledging the futility of arguing with the obstinate), I didn't bother to attempt to convince him that his perceptions of language were, perhaps, archaic.

That person's objections aside, it does strike me that there's more reason to encourage use of "impact" instead of "effect" besides just laziness on the part of speakers. It's because "impact" is the same whether it's a noun or a verb; "effect" is only a noun and a common error in writing is use of that as a verb, even though in that context it should be "affect." (Also, the inverse of that scenario, where "affect" is improperly used as a noun occurs, but I don't notice that as often. And yes, I know "affect" can be a noun in certain contexts but not in the ones we're discussing here.)

The terms are similar but the onus remains on the writer to keep the distinction in mind, and even though it's tacitly encouraging laziness to concede this point, it may be better to simply encourage those who aren't getting that distinction correct to use "impact" instead (both as noun and verb) and eschew "affect"/"effect" altogether. If one cannot get right the more-complicated-but-strictly-correct terms then using the perhaps-questionably-appropriate-but-at-least-not-incorrect term may be the better option.

If I thought that digging in our linguistic heels somehow magically would get all those misusing "affect"/"effect" I'd say that's the way to go, but at some point standing on principle is unlikely to do anything more than exacerbate the issue. The mis-users will continue to misuse the "_ffect" terms and not get it when someone tries to explain it (which, presumably, has occurred before).

We all know what they mean when they say "impact"; let's throw them that rhetorical bone without quibbling.

Not that anyone besides this person is quibbling, but for the sake of argument* let's pretend that others are.

(* Note: Not for argument with that person, of course.)


Yes, I'm not sure any of this has any basis outside of my tiny, tiny sphere. It's lucky I don't expect anyone else to give a crap. It amuses me slightly, and that's as much as a purpose as ever it will serve.


  1. I try to do my part to defend the integrity of the English language. Every time someone uses "impact" as a verb, I punch them in the face. It seems to work well.

  2. just kidding, of course. But I do correct them, not that it does any good.

    Jenji says she's been trying to leave comments on your site but she's unable to, for some reason. She misses you. She wants you to know that she still visits, she just can't comment for some reason.

  3. Marvin,
    Maybe if you explained that the punch was an example of a literal "impact" that might be both effective and your defense at the trial.

    Hi Jenji (if you see this). Stupid computers. Drop me an email (link on the left) if this comment thing doesn't clear up.


So, what do you think?