Anne Curzan, "What to do about 'impactful'?", Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/19/2013:
If I were asked to rate new words on a scale from 1-10 based on their aesthetic appeal (note: words’ aesthetic appeal in my opinion—this scale cannot possibly be objective), with 10 being the most appealing and 1 being the least, I would give impactful about a 3. In other words, I notice the word, and I don’t especially like it.
Now, let’s be clear: There is no particularly good reason for my displeasure with this word. There are plenty of similar adjectives in the language, formed by a noun + -ful to mean “full of or having a lot of [the noun]”: for example, playful, joyful, eventful. The adjective impactful is relatively new to the language, but that’s not a good reason for my distaste either—there are lots of other new words that I like (e.g., the wonderfully playful recombobulate). The meaning of impactful is a bit vague (for example, is the impact good or bad?), but the same critique could be made of well-accepted adjectives like influential. The word may sound business jargony to some, but the data no longer fully support this connotation, as I’ll get to.
Curzan quotes the top Urban Dictionary entry for impactful: “A nonexistent word coined by corporate advertising, marketing, and business drones to make their work sound far more useful, exciting, and beneficial to humanity than it really is.” She also links to Paul Brians' note:
Many people in business and education like to speak of things that have an impact as being “impactful,” but this term does not appear in most dictionaries and is not well thought of by traditionalists. Use “influential” or “effective” instead.
She reviews some other impactful facts and opinions, and her conclusion is clear and reasonable:
If and when I’m asked on a survey for the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel (I have been a member since 2005) whether impactful is acceptable in formal written usage, I will say yes. Because, as the data above show, it is. I will bow to the data, not to my personal opinion.
I will also listen to history. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin didn’t like colonize. Dean Alford despaired over reliable in the 19th century. And in 2013, Anne Curzan thought impactful was not very pretty. These opinions about new words will all look quaint in retrospect.
We can and should have smart, critical conversations about usage—about, for instance, clarity and rhetorical effectiveness. If impactful still strikes you as ineffective jargon, then avoid it—but realize that it will not strike everyone that way. Rhetorical effectiveness and clarity are not static, and we should recognize when an opinion about a new word is just that—a personal opinion.
But there's more to be learned from this case. Specifically, there are two widespread ideas about impactful — its deprecated users and its deprecated semantics — that are characteristic of usage peeving more broadly, and may also be connected with the emotional intensity of some reactions to perceived usage problems.
Let's start with the question of who uses this word. Looking over the usage literature, we find many repetitions of the idea that impactful is what Anne Curzan calls "business jargony", associated with what the Urban Dictionary entry calls "corporate advertising, marketing, and business drones", and Paul Brians calls "people in business and education".
The verb impact is criticized, and rightly so, but the adjective impactful, often used by businesspeople and marketers, is condemnable.
Or Sarah Campbell, Authority Robbers and Wasted Words, 2007:
The noun impact is becoming so popular that it is now regularly used as a verb. Even derivatives of impact have surfaced: the adjective impactful is creeping into the business jargon and perhaps American Standard English as well.
Or "'Impactful' Is NOT a Real F%#@ing Word!!", The Sassy Librarian:
This is a word that was created in an advertising company. Yes, advertising. The same people who brought us: “lite,” “nite,” “drinkability,” “powercision,” “signage,” I could go on.
Similar revulsion against "business jargon" or "management-speak" is a common justification for lexical peeving. But my experience with such cases is that the alleged socio-cultural association is often a false stereotype — see e.g. "'At the end of the day' not management-speak", 9/26/2009.
So what are the actual facts about the current usage of impactful?
Quick experiment #1: Google News claims 4,430 current results for impactful, and checking the first 100, I find that the largest source by far (40%) is sports writing ("Most impactful offseason signings"; "10 Most Impactful Trade Deadline Moves of the Past 10 Years"; "The Most Impactful Defensive Career From 2013 Recruiting Class"; "If he can't make an impactful impression early in 2013-14, however, he'll be watching the games at home like the rest of us"; "…the fact that he is set to leave on a free transfer is no indication of how impactful he has been for Borussia Dortmund"; "It's hard to have a more impactful 27 minutes on the field than Sam did in New York's 3-2 win"; "… he hit a game-winning three-pointer and often shined as the team's most energetic, impactful player"; etc.)
The next most common category (10%) is arts/music: "Even with a classic album as impactful as 'Innervisions,' the best was still yet to come"; "Has there ever been a rock chorus as simultaneously dumb and impactful as 'C-C-C-C-C-Cocaine'?"; "Aesthetically, the art is impactful in content and skill"; The collection is both deeply personal and visually impactful"; "Ultimately, the greatest music ever made has been forged in a crucible of massively impactful emotions"; "In fact, some of the most momentous scenes register as more melodramatic and less impactful than the author probably intended"; etc.
Several other categories are commoner than business, marketing, or education, including what we might call "human interest" ("Bloggers Remember an Impactful Life, Share Recipes, Rally Co-Workers"; "Lesson on leading a more impactful life from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore"; "As physicians, leading by example is hugely impactful with the patients we advise"; etc.)
Quick experiment #2: The COCA corpus has 58 occurrences of impactful. 16 are from arts-related reviews, interviews, essays, etc.; 13 are from discussions of politics; 7 are from sports stories; 5 are about science; business and education get 4 each.
Such experiments are not determinative, since we don't know what fraction of the input to each of the searches was supplied by business- or education-related material. But still, we can conclude that most of the examples ordinary people have encountered in recent everyday life have come from sports, arts, politics, etc., and not from "corporate advertising, marketing, and business drones", or from "people in business and education", or from "businesspeople and marketers", or however that evidently-despised minority is to be described.
But wait — maybe "corporate advertising, marketing, and business drones" got impactful started, before the sports and arts and politics writers took it over?
I don't think so.
The earliest example that I've found is this one — "Program of Human Uplift", The Jewish Exponent 10/16/1953:
The United Jewish Appeal, completing fifteen years of effective, profoundly impactful fund-raising activity in behalf of Israel, European Jewry, and other major causes, has inevitably been an influential representative of the Jews on the international scene and has, in the course of its operations, earned the respect of governments.
And the labor columnist Victor Riesel seems to have been rather fond of the word. "Al Hayes Seen as Meany Heir", 9/28/1959:
Unless his resignation to go into the diplomatic service or some other impactful project would remove the one welding force which keeps the old-line building and metal trades tied in one federation with the Reuther bloc.
"Reuther Grinding Hour-Ax", 2/14/1961:
One thing is certain. When Reuther starts rolling, it will be the year's most "impactful" homefront story since the inauguration.
"Lindsay's Future Tied to Liberals", 11/8/1965:
And since they are the pivotal block in the most pivotal state and their image is even more impactful than their votes, they could go anywhere in '72 and points in between.
His column for 2/28/1966:
And obscured in the literature distributed to the newsmen the other day, Feb. 21, 1966, was the impactful phrase that such unity would be the mainstream of the Communist efforts on all fronts — political, civil liberties, civil rights, youth, and propaganda.
The rest of the early history of the word, in the 1960s and 1970s, seems to involve several strands, in none of which are "corporate advertising, marketing, and business drones" implicated. One strand is academic literature in the arts and in clinical psychology, e.g.
J.F.T. Bugental, "Precognitions of a fossil", Journal of Humanistic Psychology 1962:
Why aren't there psychologists in emergency hospitals? Here, human experience is laid bare in a cruel fashion which might tell us a great deal. I had the impactful experience of being in an emergency hospital when a member of my family was there for his last hours.
P. Hutchings, "Organic Unity Revindicated?", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1965.
The Marvell example raises more complex issues and there is no room to discuss them here, but it is worth noticing that the virtual and informal synonymity which seems to hold in Miss Lord's article between important or prominently impactful parts = the plot of a poem = the essence of a poem will not do.
D. Landy & E. Aronson, "Liking for an evaluator as a function of his discernment"Journal of personality and social psychology, 1968:
When the confederate was initially negative and became more positive (gain), she was seen as a discerning individual and, as a result, her final positive evaluations were rationally more meaningful and impactful and thus more rewarding than invariantly positive evaluations.
L. Ancona & M.A. Croce, "Psychic dynamics and cinematographic dynamism", 1970:
Emotional consequences of movies are longer lasting and more impactful than previously assumed.
I.A. Taylor & M.W. Knapp, "Creative artistic production of chronic schizophrenics through simultaneous sensory stimulation" In Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, 1971.
10 experimental chronic schizophrenics were treated biweekly to SSS over an extended 6-mo period. Their art work during this period became more creative as evidenced by being more generative, original, complex, condensed, impactful, relevant, and transforming.
A second strand is in African-American media, e.g.
"Progress Report: The Negro in New York", New York Amsterdam News 3/5/1966:
This will also be the largest, most impactful, edition published during the 130-year history of the American Negro Press (which was founded here in New York).
E. Duke McNeil, "If we are to control our areas, we must be ready", Chicago Defender 10/26/1971:
It has long been my very personal opinion and committment that one of the most dramatic and impactful directions for Black and Minority folk is in well organized community organizations.
A.S. Doc Young, "Goliath wants to win", Chicago Defender 1/19/1972:
No one can dispute the fact that Wilt has been a great box-office attraction. It has been said, in fact, that he increased NBA attendance 23 per cent during his early impactful years in the NBA.
A.S. Doc Young, "The Lady's Blues", Los Angeles Times 11/19/1972:
Of course, no one is making movies based on the lives of Duke Ellington, Robert Sengstacke Abbott (late editor and publisher of the highly-influential Chicago Defender), the late Louis Armstrong, the most impactful figure in "pop" music; C.C. Spaulding, a primary builder of the largest business owned by blacks; John H. Johnson, who, having started with $100 and $400 borrowed from his mother, has built a multi-million-dollar magazine empire.
"From Pan-Africanism to Black Political Sessions: 1900-1972", New Pittsburgh Courier 8/25/1973:
The more potentially impactful the African effort is to compete in whatever country he resides, the greater the degree of difficulty the obstacle contains.
A third strand is writing in the L.A. Times and elsewhere on topics from fashion and the arts to politics and pop psychology:
Earl Wilson, "Book Spoofs James Bond", [Syndicated Column] 8/30/1965:
"But I did it first!" maintained Weinstein. "In a three-minute comedy routine I wrote for Joe E. Lewis in 1964, I had anticipated the Bond craze would become as impactful as it did."
Display Ad, Los Angeles Times 3/14/1966:
Three 1966 examples from Ben Zimmer's response to a question about anachronism in Mad Men:
"Maritime Union Wants Rent-Free Housing," Victor Riesel (syndicated column), Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times, June 9, 1966
"So there is impactful significance in Curran's trade unionese …"
"Perlmutter 'Captures' City," John Neville, Dallas Morning News, Sep. 22, 1966:
"His prints are perhaps more impactful because of the sharpness of their delineation."
" 'Coppelia' With Style at Bushnell," T.H. Parker, Hartford Courant, Oct. 24, 1966":
Mr. Collins is the epitome of the dancer noble, as soloist and partner, easy yet impactful, masterful in technique."
"Unruh Doubts Reagan Can Cut State Costs", Los Angeles Times 11/21/1966:
"I personally feel that they have not done that and that there is a necessity to see if we can't find a more dramatic, a more impactful way of doing it." [Quote from Jesse Unruh]
John Kendall, "Council Panel OKs Citizens' Zoning Report", Los Angeles Times 1/22/1969:
Brand read from a letter from the Planning Commission which stated: " [...] Not only must applications for planned unit developments be examined individually as to their appropriateness, form, and phasing form the city wide points of views, but standards cannot now be written which could justify an automatic right to insert such potentially huge or impactful changes in the pattern of the city."
"Coppola Makes a Unique Film", The Ottawa Journal, 6/21/1969:
If something shot one day did not look good when viewed and edited next day in the caravan, the company simply moved on to another place and other conditions more exciting, provocative, impactful.
May Seagoe, "How to Establish, Nourish Intimacy", Los Angeles Times 11/22/1970:
We must develop an eye for the details that express the true other, and use these as a basis for the first impactful encounter.
Isabella Taves, "Planning Ahead Eases Impact of Future Shock", The Ogden Standard-Examiner, 7/4/1971:
Of all the impactful changes which can happen to us, the one which carries the highest rate of hazard is the death of a spouse.
And then starting around 1973, impactful spreads to other major media outlets, mostly in arts and music reviews:
David Sterritt, "Four-man 'energy circus' from Vermont farm", The Christian Science Monitor 4/16/1973:
The switch to all-dance was significant. Music had been important in the early "barnstorming" day — "playing little happenings in college lounges, doing spontaneous workshops . . . but music was not as impactful. We're better, or have chosen to be better, as dancers." [Review of Pilobolus]
Clayton Riley, "Cleo's Got Fire and Fury", New York Times 9/30/1973:
Other moods bring out deeper and more impactful encounters: the fine sound Laine generates when presented with more comfortable material. [Review of Cleo Laine]
Thomas Willis, "Behind this 'Cloud' is a bit of Wimsey", Chicago Tribune 10/10/1973:
What hath art criticism wrought? Asked for his comments on the "Made in Chicago" exhibit of Chicago art and artists at the Sao Paulo Biennial, our ambassador to Brazil called it "sort of impactful . . . sort of vibrant . . . certainly iconoclastic . . . not bound by any schools".
David Hamilton, "Will 'Palestrina' Win Friends?", New York Times 11/11/1973:
The few moments of bright color are thus all the more impactful — whether the unfolding radiance 'of the Palestrina Mass itself (the opening measures of several sections are quoted literally) or the massive bell sonorities that bring the following dawn. [Review of the opera Palestrina]
"Focus on Rhodes in 'Opus Lemaitre'", Los Angeles Times 4/8/1974:
The Los Angeles premiere of Hans "van" Manen's impactful "Opus Lemaitre", Benjamin Harkarvy's ingratiating "Madrigalesco" and a repeat performance of John Butler's "Carmina Burana" made up the program Saturday night as the Pennsylvania Ballet completed its three-engagement stand in UCLA's Royce Hall.
"LPs: Alla Breve", Los Angeles Times 5/19/1974:
Varese's music plays nicely into the hands of two of the Philharmonic's strongest sections — brass and percussion. Both "Arcana" and the percussion-only "Ionisation" are taut and impactful.
Deirdre Carmody, "World of the Foreign Correspondent Seems to Be Shrinking", New York Times 1977:
The farther you get away from news about this .country, the more descriptive and colorful and impactful it has,to be for readers here," says Mr. Hoge, the Chicago Daily News editor.
The same period also sees the earliest negative reaction that I've found, in the form of a satirical piece by Edwin Newman, "My College Essay", New York Times 1/16/1977:
I believe that the thrust of this application is reality-oriented and that your ongoing placement service would be able to help me find a professional context in which my expertise could be doubly impactful in our increasingly techno-humanistic society.
Given that neither the current nor the early usage of impactful is "business jargon", why do so many people maintain this false belief? As I wrote in an earlier post, this is probably
. . . another example of the common process of stereotype-formation, where some behavior perceived as annoying comes to be associated with a class of people who are also perceived as annoying, and the association is then repeatedly strengthened by confirmation bias. (See "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007, for some discussion.)
OK, on to impactful's deprecated semantics.
Wilson Follett (or Erik Wensberg), Modern American Usage (1966, revised 1998), thinks that it's FALSE and WRONG to interpret X-ful as "full of X", and that this is why words like impactful are bad:
Curiously, in Modern American Usage (2009), Bryan Garner argues that it's CORRECT and indeed NECESSARY to interpret X-ful as "full of X", and that this is why impactful is bad:
The Oxford English Dictionary basically agrees with Follett about the meaning of -ful:
1. Forming adjs. In Old English the adj. full, like its equivalent in the other Germanic langs., was used in compounds with a preceding n., forming adjs., the etymological sense of which (= ‘full of..’) is usually somewhat weakened, so that the words may be rendered ‘having’, ‘characterized by’ (the attribute denoted by the n.); the meaning of the suffix thus differs little from that of Latin -ōsus, -ous suffix. In Middle English and in modern English many new formations of this type have arisen, some of them from Romanic ns., as beautiful, graceful; and the suffix is still to some extent productive. In the 14th c. a few new forms arose in which the suffix had the force of ‘possessing the qualities of’; e.g.masterful, manful. [...]
But on this account, it seems that insightful meaning "having insight" or characterized by insight" — or impactful meaning "having impact" or "characterized by impact" — should be fine. And indeed the OED's gloss for insightful is "Characterized by insight". (There is no OED entry yet for impactful.)
So why did Bryan Garner, a highly intelligent and insightful person, make this elementary error? I'm not sure, but I suspect that it's connected with another odd thing about his entry for impactful. He assigns it to Stage 1 on his "Language-Change Index".
This Index has five stages, from
Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.
Stage 5: The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).
I've previously questioned whether it's always appropriate to treat usage norms as "a simple matter of the gradual acceptance of innovation", but let's accept that idea for now. What interests me is that the mild description of Stage 1 quoted above ("A new form emerges as an innnovation…") morphs, in Garner's list of "serviceable analogies", into a savage indictment of the behavior and character of those who use Stage 1 words, phrases and constructions:
The "School-Grade Analogy" for Stage 1 is "F", the "Golf Analogy" is "Quadruple bogey", the "Olfaction Analogy" is "Foul", the "Skill-Level Analogy" is "Bungler", the "Military-Discharge Analogy" is "Dishonorable discharge", the "Etiquette Analogy" is "Audible farting", the "Traffic-Penalty Analogy" is "$500 fine and jail time", the "School-Discipline Analogy" is "Expulsion", the "Moral Analogy" is "Mortal Sin", . . .
All that for a bit of linguistic inventiveness? No, a Dishonorable Discharge from the speech community implies some greater sin than mere casual innovation. Those analogical crimes and punishments — typical of the animus directed against deprecated linguistic usage — need to be motivated by a serious offense against deeply-felt values.
And violating the basic logic of semantic compositionality might constitute such an offense.
The same need to rationalize strong negative emotions may explain some of the other offenses often attributed to linguistic miscreants: a malicious intention to mislead or confuse the audience; careless vandalism of precious cultural legacies; or simply being a bad kind of person.
Thus the second Urban Dictionary entry for impactful calls it
… utter marketing gash, its words like this that make society bad and help meaningless marketing plebians ascend the rungs of their pointless evil careers and step on anyone creative in their path.
Bryan Garner's phrase "barbarous jargon" evokes the Vandals and similar threats to civilization, if only metaphorically.
And a comment here notes that
I will never use it and will instantly hate anyone who does. But, languages do evolve and all that… So I don't really have a moral claim, other than the fact that people who say "impactful" tend to be enormous douche bags.
Meanwhile, 360 Development Solutions offers us a workshop on Business Writing With Impact, which promises that
This practical workshop gives participants an easy-to-follow framework for planning, structuring and writing documents for professionalism and impact. Participants will also learn how to cut out ‘waffle’ and construct clear, concise sentences in plain, impactful English, and how to edit and lay out work professionally.