Impactful

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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".

Thus Robert Harwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English, 2011:

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:

-ful, suffix:

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.

to

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.

 

 



47 Comments

  1. J.L. Barnes said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 6:53 am

    Just a note, near the end there, you mistakenly repeat "characterized by insight" as a possible meaning of "impactful" – which, incidentally, my browser doesn't recognize as a word.

    [(myl) Thanks -- my typo is fixed now. Browser spellcheck lists will take longer to update.]

  2. Phil Jennings said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    "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."

    Were there a book on the deprecated words of history I would buy it.

    I mean words indicted by people who exercise some wit on the subject, like Swift or Johnson. People who know how to skewer.

    [(myl) I'm not aware of any such book, perhaps because the set of lexical skewerings by the like of Swift and Johnson may be too small to support a book-length treatment. (Though on the other side, you could include things like Thomas Nashe's Epistle to the Reader...)

    But if we allow peeving by other authoritative voices, however, we can include entertaining things like the Times of London's objection to belittle (in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia), The Nation's objection to urge as a noun or practically in the sense "nearly", Edwin Newman's objection to hospitalize and troops, and so on. It's common to find lists of such antiquated peeves, but I'm not aware of a book devoted to the subject.]

  3. Dan Hemmens said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 7:21 am

    Truly, the kneejerk assumption that any pretentious, irritating, or even merely unfamiliar use of language must have originated in the world of business and marketing is the last acceptable form of prejudice.

    Am I the only one who finds the Follet/Wensburg argument from the 1960s particularly hard to follow. Even if we accept, for the moment, that "beautiful" and "meaningful" can only mean "having beauty" and "having meaning" rather than "being full of beauty" and "being full of meaning" how on Earth does it follow that "impactful" is forbidden?

  4. Dan Hemmens said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    @Phil Jennings

    There's always Ambrose Bierce's Write it Right which is more of a general peeves list than a deprecated words list, but does score over other similar lists in being genuinely amusing.

    I am particularly fond of his objection to literally as intensifier: " It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable."

  5. Impactful | ChristianBookBarn.com said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    [...] Article FROM http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5630 < Anne Curzan, " What to do about 'impactful'?", C hronicle of Higher [...]

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 8:20 am

    I had never heard of the word "impactful" until I read this post. As soon as I saw it here, I immediately thought of "hurtful", which is very much in evidence these days and which I thought might have provided a model and sanction for "impactful". However, since "hurtful" goes back to the mid-15th century — even though it has a contemporary ring to it now — it does not belong to the category of new -ful coinages.

  7. Nancy Friedman said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    To Phil Jennings and Dan Hemmens: In 2009, Jan Freeman (blogger at Throw Grammar from the Train and former Boston Globe language columnist) published "Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers." I recommend it highly. Among Bierce's peeves: "jeopardize" (should be "jeopard," said Bierce), "reliable" ("not yet admitted to the vocabulary of the fastidious"), and "ovation" ("an inferior triumph" in ancient Rome, and never a round of applause).

  8. Jason Eisner said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    Thanks for the extensive research into early and later citations. So why is "impactful" perceived as characteristically business-speak when it's not?

    It's unfortunate that citations are weighted only by the number of times they were written, not the number of times they were read. Advertising gets a lot of play, by design. So it is possible that most people — or at least most of the peevers — really have encountered "impactful" primarily in that context, despite your finding that the business and advertising communities are not responsible for producing it first or most often.

    I am not sure that I believe this hypothesis, but it's a pity that there's no way (that I know of) to investigate it easily. I wonder whether there are web corpora that are weighted by page hit count. Or broadcast media corpora — written or spoken — that are weighted by audience size.

    Another hypothesis is that readers tend to notice some uses more than others. Are the business and advertising examples particularly irritating even if they are not particularly frequent? As an example, I felt for a while that I was encountering the word "vibrant" all the time in academic marketing. Every department and every degree program seemed to describe itself as a vibrant community. Because I perceived a suddenly increased rate of "vibrant" in this context, and because most of those uses irritated me as vapidly self-congratulatory, it was especially salient to me in this context. It's quite possible that I was encountering "vibrant" more frequently in other contexts without noticing it.

    [(myl) I agree that it would be useful to be able to track the speech and text inputs of a typical speech-community member for long enough to compare perceptions of the sources of deprecated words with the corresponding realities.

    But we know from many studies in other areas that differential salience and confirmation bias often result in stereotypical associations that are strikingly at variance with the facts.]

  9. Bill W said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 9:21 am

    Does Brian Garner allow us to use "bashful"?

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 9:44 am

    The sort of stereotypical association of deprecated language usages with deprecated groups of people can be a bit protean – it's enjoyable to be able to undermine a particular peever's empirical claim, but e.g. journalism, academic jargon, and perhaps some of the other streams identified above have also historically been deprecated by peevers as non-business-jargon sources of barbarous neologisms. When you are an embattled defender of purity and high standards, you can easily identify a dizzyingly broad range of social types as the foes by which you are besieged, even if they would not always seem to be each others' natural allies. (Journalists themselves may be peevers, but they no doubt often have rival types of journalist, e.g. sportswriters, to use as targets for deprecation – although the sort of people who write reviews of fairly obscure subgenres of classical music, as in some of the examples given above, might be a more difficult target — unless of course you can charge them with spreading an academic-jargon barbarous neologism.)

    The very first usage myl found (the Jewish Exponent one) sounds to my quite-possibly-too-cynical ear like an example of the style of journalistic prose that is created by very lightly rewriting a self-laudatory press release from the subject of your story before slapping your own byline on it. Even when the self-laudatory press release is from a non-profit (as the UJA here), that seems within shouting distance of ad-agency copy which may in turn be within shouting distance of business jargon.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    I was baffled by the pejorative phrase "utter marketing gash" above, and wondered if "gash" might be a typo for "gush." But since that was in an urbandictionary definition I did some cross-referencing within urbandictionary (subject to whatever its shortcomings may be . . .) and although the first page of proffered definitions for "gash" were all the vulgar-sexual-slang-and/or-misogynist use with which I was familiar, the second page had instances of a previously-unknown-to-me alternative sense of "something that is crap/rubbish" (perhaps primarily a BrEng usage?), which makes sense in context. I'm not sure if I want to know if that's an opaque metaphorical extension of the other slang sense or an independent development.

  12. Midweek Links — Dave Talks Shop said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    [...] impactful business jargon … or something even weirder?  I love Language Log for posts like [...]

  13. Robert Coren said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    @Bill W:

    Sometime in the vague and distant past I read or heard a possibly apocryphal story about W. S. Gilbert: Some carping person confronted him on his use of "coyful" in The Yeomen of the Guard (presumably invented by Gilbert in order to get a rhyme for "joyful"), pointing out that one could hardly be said to be "full of coy"; to which Gilbert replied, "Nonsense! Have you ever heard of anyone being full of bash?"

    On the general topic: I'm as capable of being esthetically offended by "marketing jargon" as the next person, but I can't for the life of me see what's wrong with "impactful", or what word or phrase one should use instead.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    Some pre-1953 (including 19th century!) hits for "impactful" in google books are either the result of misdating due to bad metadata or OCR misrecognition of "respectful." But (as best as I can tell given limitations of snippet view), the 1939 date on this sentence from The Commentator a/k/a Scribner's Commentator* seems legit: "The coronation of a pope [presumably Pius XII], the non-stop European crisis — these and kindred events become right-of-way news on radio — more immediate and impactful than even the front page."

    *Ceased publication in 1942 after claims that its pacifist/isolationist editorial line on foreign policy had been rewarded by payoffs from the Japanese government, sez wikipedia.

    [(myl) Interesting. In principle, it seems to me, anyone could plausibly have coined "impactful" at any time in the past 200 years or so, ever since people (starting apparently with Coleridge) began using impact in a figurative sense.]

  15. Terry Hunt said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    J. W. Brewer: re 'gash' = 'rubbish', it may be of interest that this sense was common usage in the 20th-century Royal Navy, where chutes on ships used for discharging garbage into the sea were known as "gash-chutes."

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    Impingent.

  17. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

    It seems to me that "impactful" might fill a need. Is there another word with the same meaning? I can't come up with one off the top of my head. If it does fill a need, I think it's pointless to quibble about it.

  18. John Lawler said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    It is interesting to me that, over 5 hours after this post was made, searches of this page for the strings "phon", "clust", or "stress" all turn up "Not found" (until this comment, that is).

    I.e, nobody's mentioned the sound of this word so far. Three syllables. Presumably formed from the bisyllabic noun, which is stressed on the first syllable: IM-pact (where the verb is stressed on the second: im-PACT). But the vowel in "pact" is always /æ/; it never reduces all the way to shwa, even when it doesn't have primary stress.

    OK, now what happens when we add a truly unstressed-ful suffix? We get a three-syllable vowel-initial word with stresses lined up in 2-1-0 order, lax vowels in the most-stressed syllables, an aspirated /p/ between the first and the second syllable, and a /ktf/ cluster between the last two.

      IM.pact.fl

    This is a tough word. No wonder Anne doesn't like it much. It's hard to say and hard to parse. It's an "un-Englishy" word and doesn't fit normal phonotactic rules well, never mind what it means or how it's formed. It just plain sounds wrong. And that draws attention to any other faults it may have, or that may be imagined it has.

    But I'm still surprised that phonology hadn't come up before this.

    [(myl) With initial main stress, "impactful" is no different stress-wise from monomorphemic "Hoboken"; or the regularly inflected forms "impacting" or "impacted" for those who have first-syllable stress on the verb impact, or "contracting" or "contracted" (in the case of contract "to enter into an agreement", again for those who retain first-syllable stress on the verb in that meaning).

    But most people (including me) are likely to shift the stress to the second syllable of impactful, yielding /imˈpæktfəl/, as in the Macmillan Dictionary entry.]

  19. Bill W said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

    "Is there another word with the same meaning?"

    Effective? Striking? I'm not sure there's any single word that could replace it in all of the quotations above, but there are probably several words that could replace it in most of the quotations. That's not an argument against using it, of course–there are many more or less synonomous word-pairs of word-clusters in English. But it's not a word with a very precise meaning and it seems to me that a synonym could be found in most instances.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    Prof. Lawler. My own assumption/intuition is that "impactful" has primary stress on the second syllable (1-2-0 order, to use your notation), although since its a word I know more from reading than hearing and don't know that I've ever uttered it, my intuition may not be worth much. But the sound clip here
    http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/pronunciation/american/impactful: seems to accord with that intution. Will anyone in this thread admit to regularly uttering the deprecated word such that their own pronunciation is a meaningful data point?

  21. Steve said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

    I'm not fond of impactful, but it sounds perfectly "Englishy" to me: "-ful" as a root meaning "having the quality of being X" is not unprecedented. And English is a neologism-friendly language. Unless by "not Englishy" you mean "it doesnt sound as pleasing to me as the English words that I like."

    I've always heard it pronounced im-PACT-full, not IM-pact-ful, I.e., the impact part is pronounced like the verb (im-PACT), not the noun (IM-pact). Dictionary.com seems to support my sense of how the noun and verb forms are typically pronounced, but it doesn't have a pronounciation info for "impactful". M-W.com lists both "IM-pact-ful" and "im-PACT-ful" as pronounciations, but "im-PACT-ful is listed first, and the only audio sample provided says "im-PACT-ful." Neither is really very hard to say, but I find "im-PACT-ful" a little easier to say. But YMMV.

    My sense is that "it's hard to say" is often proffered as a post hoc rationalization for one's idiosyncratic dislike of a word. I don't particularly like it either, any more than I like "deliverable" or "direct report", but it's not particularly hard to say, I think, and all three words have clear utility, which my dislike of them does not change.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    Prof. Lawler's claims as to the oddity of the word's phonotactics extend beyond the stress pattern, and I'm certainly not technically competent to carry on a dispute with him in this area, although I would tentatively suggest that if the k-t-f consonant sequence were too much of a mouthful one might expect the /t/ to go missing in rapid/casual speech with a result like "im-PACK-ful." I think you frequently get that in some varieties of AmEng for final -kt, e.g. "respect" coming out as respeck (sometimes with shifted stress to REE-speck, which approximately rhymes with "rednecks" in that Charlie Daniels song).

  23. TR said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    Are there other cases of stress shift with -ful, apart from insightful and (for some speakers, evidently) impactful?

  24. Rick said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

    But if we didn't have "impactful", how could we have "impactfulness"? http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13162-012-0025-6

  25. Mark Heseltine said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

    I've found that "compelling" usually fits better with what I mean to say instead of "impactful"

  26. Rubrick said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    On my first skim of the top section of this post, I immediately thought "Holy cow! Someone in the media has written something sensible about coinages and word-bias!". Then I looked more carefully. "Oh, never mind, she's a linguist."

  27. John Lawler said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

    Well, thanks for the actual data. Personally, I've never heard the word impactful actually pronounced on purpose; I've only seen it spelled. I can stress the verb impact either way in my mind's ear — which means I've heard it both ways enough times for them to both be familiar. Though I have to say that the initially-stressed noun IMpact feels to me like the correct formative to add -fulto.

    Still, that's all theoretical. Some of you have actually heard impactful in the wild. Therefore, in the unlikely event that I find myself compelled to use impactful in the future, I will feel much better prepared for the ordeal, thanks to everyone's advice.

    On a side note, why should usages of impactful in texts on sports, "human interest" journalism, and popular arts and music not be considered to be "business jargony"?

    Sports, journalism, and popular arts and music are all large important corporate entities, run by and for — and emitting texts couched in terms used by — business.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    I expect the answer is either that "business jargon" is a non-compositional idiom or that at a minimum "business" is a word that can have varying scopes of reference and "business jargon" is only compositional for some of the narrower scopes. In 1967 when Jimi Hendrix wrote the lyric "Go ahead on, Mr. Businessman /.You can't dress like me," he was among other things in the business (as it were) of trying to make as much money as possible for Reprise Records, which was at the time a subsidiary of Warner Bros. – Seven Arts, Inc., which was indubitably a full-on profit-seeking business, run once you got high enough up the hierarchy by stereotypically-dressed businessmen. But no doubt they understood that under then-prevailing market conditions it was good for business for Hendrix to appear to be distinguishing himself from them, and laughed all the way to the bank. I would still say that certain distinctive lexical/syntactic features you might find in stories in Billboard or other trade publications would be a subgenre of "business jargon" whereas such features you might find in the lyrics on the records appearing on the Billboard charts would be something else entirely (unless the lyrics were themselves full of industry jargon, as can sometimes happen when a rock star gets the dubious inspiration to write a song complaining about his former label/manager/accountants).

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    http://rapgenius.com/Wale-the-perfect-plan-lyrics demonstrates that there is at least one rap song out here with "impactful" in the lyrics. But Bryan Garner might find a lot of other things to peeve about in the text as a whole, and would need to prioritize.

  30. On the history of “impactful” - jason swadley said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    [...] Language changes, and so must we. But I'll reserve use of the word "impact" for the astronomer, and the dentist. Previously: Inside the Tesla Factory [...]

  31. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    > 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.

    Doesn't that defeat the purpose of having a Usage Panel?

  32. Bob Ladd said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 5:55 am

    I was going to say what John Lawler said about the awkward stress pattern – including not ever having heard the word and imagining it pronounced either way. I agree with him that in derivationally complex words, there's definitely something wrong with the stress pattern that has main stress on the first syllable, full vowel in the second syllable, and schwa in the suffix. MYL is of course correct that Hoboken and contacting exhibit the same stress pattern, but neither involves derivational morphology.

    The town of Lehighton (not far from Philadelphia) should have that same awkward stress pattern, being transparently Lehigh (with stress on first syllable) plus -ton, but in fact it's pronounced with the main stress on the second syllable. Ever since I stopped there on a Greyhound bus some 30 years ago and heard the bus driver pronounce it that way, I'd been puzzled by the stress shift, but the shifted stress on insightful and (for some people) impactful provides a further example of the same phenomenon. And it suggests that the stress pattern really could be a factor in the objections to impactful.

  33. Flex said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    I find that some of the examples in the OP sound fine, but some of them sound incredibly awkward.

    Generally, I find the examples which use 'impactful' with an additional intensifier awkward. So while I read "with impactful neutrality" as a clever phrase; in contrast, "…the largest, most impactful, edition published…." seems unnatural.

    Maybe it's because I don't read impactful as 'full of impact', but instead read it as 'having great impact'. It's like the '-ful' is really turning 'impact' from its verb meaning, into the adjective; rather than from the noun meaning of 'impact'. I still hear the verb when I read 'impactful'.

    So 'most impactful' seems awkward, but 'clear, concise, and impactful' seems perfectly all right to me.

    Of course I'm no linguist or grammarian (only a paltry EMC Engineer), so if my terminology above is incorrect, I can only hope my meaning is clear. ;)

  34. Rodger C said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    @Bob Ladd: Reminds me of Elizabethton, TN, which is stressed on the fourth syllable and usually realized as "lizBETHton."

  35. Sven said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    Non-scientifically, but empirically, I think a lot of business jargon is adopted from sports commentary. Aesthetically (and obviously subjectively), I'd say business and sports produce the least appealing new words and phrases. That shouldn't be surprising; in what other areas do people talk so much while saying so little? (In politics, yes, but politicians at least tend to hire professional speech writers.)

  36. hector said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    Well, as a history professor told us once, when you're reading an article, always try to figure out what the author is arguing against. So if people are offended by "impactful" because it's business-jargony, "impactful" is just a place-holder for their real peeve, business jargon.

    And amen to that.

  37. Meesher said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

    I have to admit this one gets past my peeve blockers. I know it's the recency illusion etc, but it makes me a bit sad to see "affect (v)" and "effective" crowded out so quickly. Could affect/effect uncertainty cause people to avoid both in favor of "impact?"

  38. Garry said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    We clearly need balance in the lexicon. Therefore, I propose "impactless."

  39. Ric said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 4:37 am

    Thanks for a thoughtful article – no half-pun intended.

    I agree that language is conventional, and once a word accrues a new meaning by moving from verb to noun we we have to accept the conjugations and participle forms that will follow.

    I still hate contemporary usage. However, my gripe is not with the grammar of impactful (though I have seen impactive, impactiv ness, and yes even impactative!).

    But my hate arises from a fear of semantic death. Impact – etymologically – is well suited to describe meteor strikes, and the condition of diseased teeth and bowels. It has little relationship to effect. Today it has an undeniable connotation of 'positive effect'.

    Personally I think the difficulty even native English speakers have with using effect and affect (as verbs) tends them to the unproblematic 'Impact'.

    But we loose the distinction with impact.

    It aids expression to have a rich palette of distinctive words, each with their own advantages as tools of expression.

    I don't dislike impact because it's bad English. The majority of English speakers decide correct English by speaking. I dislike it because erases the richness of difference by rendering once specific words as synonyms.

    It happens. Always has always will. From time to time it happens in ways that reduce the wonderful variety of our rich language.

  40. Mar Rojo said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 5:17 am

    impactable

  41. Rodger C said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    Impactuous.

  42. quixote said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    As Meesher said, impact is used to mean anything related to effect because the terror of displaying ignorance by misspelling the latter is pervasive. Possibly, that's also why we see it written so much more than hear it said.

    It's ugly as a spoken word, as Lawler points out.

    The problem with "impactful" for me is that I'm still stuck in the time when impact meant something like "hit." But -ful words are -ful of some sort of quality, not an action or an object. Hurtful, but not strikeful, kickful, batful.

    "Impactful" only works if impact is a synonym of effect.

    Which it isn't, dammit. No, no, no. Harrumph. And also kindly get off my lawn.

  43. Dan Hemmens said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    Today it has an undeniable connotation of 'positive effect'.

    I dislike it because erases the richness of difference by rendering once specific words as synonyms.

    I'm a bit confused here, because this feels contradictory to me. On the one hand, you seem to be saying that "Impact" has a connotation which plain "effect" does not (and for what it's worth, I don't agree that "impact" has an undeniable positive connotation. I would, in fact, deny that it has an undeniable positive connotation). On the other hand, you seem to be arguing that the use of "impact" to mean "effect" (or, for that matter "affect" – since "impact" can be used as either a noun or a verb) will cause a loss of distinction. Which it surely can't if, as you suggest earlier, "impact" has a connotation that "effect" does not.

    If you're just talking about the use of the single word "impact" to replace the two words "affect" and "effect" this isn't really eroding the language at all. The difference between "affect" and "effect" is still perfectly preserved. The "impact" in "this event will have a serious impact on X" and the "impact" in "this event will seriously impact X" are just as different as effect and affect in the same contexts. The only thing that the language loses is an arbitrary and confusing spelling distinction.

  44. What I read this week: Aug.4-10, 2013 « Grammar Guide « copydesk.org said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    [...] Lingua Franca post about "impactful" and Mark Lieberman's Language Log post in response. Nobody is ever going to get me to like "impactful," but I recognize that my distaste [...]

  45. Colin Fine said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 2:58 am

    The stereotypical association of disliked usages with particular groups is very noticeable in the strain of British peeve which assumes that every usage they dislike must be an Americanism – sometimes in complete reversal of the facts.
    As to the pronunciation, it had never occurred to me to stress the second syllable; but I usually stress the verb on the first syllable as well as the noun. I agree that the /ktf/ cluster is a little awkward, but in rapid use it will get simplified. My introspection suggests that I don't simply omit the /t/, but that I use a blended consonant: an unreleased palatal stop, which combines the velar closure with my mid-tongue with a palatal closure by my retracted tongue tip. But of course this might not be what I do in real life.

  46. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 6:10 am

    @Ric:

    But we loose the distinction with impact.

    Muphry FTW :)

    Like Dan Hemmens above, I'm unclear as to what distinction we're supposed to be losing, but in any case I don't see the problem. The relative semantic lightness of impact (v) is a trifle compared to that of have, give or take.

  47. Graeme said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 5:00 am

    With some of these unloved words, evidence of widespread use in jargony contexts won't budge the peeve. The next generation will become used to the word in such contexts; but words like this which are unlikely to leap into general (non-scripted) spoken contexts will jar present generations.

    I'm a descriptivist in my head; but a few words leave peevey shards in my heart. 'To grow', as a transitive verb for an increase in inorganic things, peeves me (eg 'we will grow the budget this year'). Corpus me, but it seems to be spreading through business management, politics and some sport commentary. If I were to be reincarnated, I would grow used to it. Is it irrational for me to want 'growth' to remain associated with organic/living systems, or metaphorically in the sense of a teleological unfolding?

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