Have you ever had trouble remembering where to use affect and where to use effect?

Have you ever had trouble remembering how to spell impact?

I don’t have actual evidence, but I have long suspected that those two questions reveal much of the cause for the common use of impact where effect or affect would serve.

Of course that’s not the only reason. Impact is a more vivid word: it presents an action, something not only specific but forceful. In its sound it’s even reminiscent of something impacting – for instance, a fist into a palm or, hmm, a space fighter into a planet surface. And it doesn’t have any schoolroom fussiness flavouring it. No wonder high-powered businesspeople (and those who want to seem high powered but aren’t really) seem to like it.

But that leads us to a reason so many people dislike it, at least in those uses where affect or effect would serve as well (if not as impactfully): it’s associated with business jargon. Which is associated with businesspeople of the sort who blather endlessly and think far too highly of themselves. Because when someone hates a word, it’s nearly always really because of who they associate the word with – those undesirable, inferior, ignorant and/or too-big-for-their-britches kinds of people. And this forms a sort of reinforcing circle: you dislike the word because of who you imagine using it, and you dislike who you imagine using it because of these dreadful words they use.

There is another factor, of course: conversion. Nouning and verbing. Although converting nouns to verbs and vice versa (and often to and from adjectives and even adverbs as well) is one of the glories of the English language, not everyone glories in it, and some people insist they will never be converted to converting, even though many of the words they process without a second thought are products of the process. They see conversion as something barbarians do (it is a barbarism because barbarians do it, and they are barbarians because they do this barbarism). And it plainly comes into the question with impact.

Impact, as we all know, has been converted. It entered the language and was used clearly and simply (impactfully, even), and then some people got their hands on it and started using it a different way. And this is true… but not quite in the way most people think.

Impact entered English as a verb by the early 1600s, used especially in the past participle, to refer to packing in or pressing close. Within the century, impact on was also in use to mean ‘impress upon’. It was not until nearly two centuries later, in the late 1700s, that it was first used as a noun, to mean what we usually use it to mean literally now: “the striking of one body against another,” as the OED puts it. By the early 1800s it was in use figuratively in contexts where effect could equally be used (if less effectfully). By the early 1900s this more action-oriented sense was established for the verb as well, literally and figuratively, with and without on following it. Also before World War II we got the word impactful.

So it’s not altogether wrong to say that the least liked uses of this word are modern, if by “modern” you mean dating to a century ago (or two, depending on the usage). But still, it is interesting to see it get such bad press, while a word that could have come to be seen as “bad press” slips through. 

I mean compact – which English knew as a verb in the early 1500s, and also as a noun by the 1600s (with various uses being added over the years – the makeup sense dates to the 1920s), but which first joined our language as an adjective in the late 1300s. Imagine, an adjective turned into a verb, and when we already had suitable words such as press and pack available! And then into a noun!

It will not have escaped your attention that impact and compact are related. (Well, the sense relating to packing is related; the sense related to pacts and agreements is not.) The only difference is im versus com, which is really in versus con but the p causes the n to assimilate. The pact root is a past participle of Latin pingere, which also shows up in impinge (and impinging can lead to impacting). So you might think we could have an adjective of impact as well. But I dare you to try “this is very impact.” You might get attact.

The impact of this word is certainly varied and variable. It also behooves those of us who work with words to be aware of the contexts in which it is welcomed and those in which it may be shunned. Nothing forces you to use it when you don’t want to, of course. But its use in place of effect and affect is becoming ever more impacted in our language, and you won’t be able root it out of others’ mouths like a wisdom tooth.

5 responses to “impact

  1. In my classroom, using “affect” in a sentence was a capital crime. It’s a useless word. “The new medication affected my symptoms.” Did it improve them or worsen them? “Impact” isn’t much better.
    (The message didn’t always get across. Here’s what I’d get instead of “affect”: “The medication altered my symptoms.” No! No! No!
    How about “improve,” “worsen,” “weaken,” “sharpen,” “lessen, “increase” or a similar word that’s more specific than “affect”?

  2. Loving your blog, it’s my new addiction.
    A question about impact: How is “the striking of one body against another” a noun? I thought a noun was a person, place, or thing.
    Confused in Mt. Tremper

    • English is odd! When a verb acquires an -ing ending, it stops being a verb. Take a look at this sentence: “Dancing is my favorite pastime.” The verb is “is.” The noun is dancing – the thing I enjoy.
      In the phrase you quoted, “the” is a giveaway that “striking” is a noun. Stick “the” in front of anything, and you’re dealing with a person, place, or thing.
      Thanks SO MUCH for the lovely words about my blog!

    • Hi! Many people get confused by having been told that a noun is just a “person, place, or thing.” A noun is in fact anything that can serve in a sentence as the subject or object of a verb. Of course, if you make the definition of “thing” broad enough, it covers it, but not everyone thinks of the impact of a space fighter into a planet as a thing – but it is a noun. Any gerund (e.g., “the striking”) also functions as a noun (that’s the distinction between a gerund and a present participle) – in jdancer’s comment above, “using” is functioning as a noun; it’s the subject of “was a capital crime” (but in a sentence such as “They were using it,” it’s a participle, part of the verb phrase).

  3. Pingback: Impact as a verb versus affect and effect | CyberText Newsletter

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