Arrant Pedantry

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Impacted

Recently I received an e-mail from my bank informing me that they had experienced some system outages. What struck me was that the e-mail kept referring to “impacted systems,” and it conjured up some strange mental images.

A lot of people hate the verb impact because they say that it should only be a noun or a participial adjective (impacted). The verb seems to be a fairly recent innovation, and it’s often stigmatized because it’s strongly associated with business-speak. (Though it’s worth pointing out that the verb contact is also a relatively recent business-speak derivation from a noun, and nobody gets up in arms about that one.)

I’m not a big fan of impact meaning “affect,” but as far as crimes against the language go, I think it’s pretty inconsequential. I think it waters down the original sense of “impinge upon” or “strike,” but such is the way language goes—words change, and there’s not a whole lot we can do to stop it.

But the participial adjective impacted is something different, at least in my mind. I don’t think it has really gained the “affected” sense that the verb impact has. It seems to me that impacted is only ever used to refer to two things: wisdom teeth and feces lodged in someone’s colon.

These are, to say the least, not exactly the associations one wants to evoke when referring to computer systems. Now, I just want to point out that this association in no way hindered my understanding of the e-mail from my bank; I knew exactly what they meant and did not have to spend any extra time figuring it out. I did, however, do a mental double-take when I read it, and that’s presumably not the reaction they were hoping for.

This is the point where a die-hard prescriptivist would rail against the abomination that is impacted meaning “affected,” but I’m not going to do that. My only point is this: feel free to use whatever words you think are best, but be aware of how they will impact your readers.

6 Responses to Impacted

  1. goofy says:

    I think “impact” as a figurative verb is recent, but AIUI, the verb “impact” meaning “to fix firmly” is attested earlier than the noun “impact”.

  2. The Ridger says:

    But how can it be a participial if it wasn’t a verb first?

    You might object to the new transitive meaning of “affect” but you have to accept it as a verb if you’re going to accept it as an adjective derived from a participle, don’t you?

  3. Jonathon says:

    Goofy: That’s what the OED says, but all their early quotations for the alleged verb impact look like participial adjectives to me, with one isolated example from 1791. Their earliest quotation for the noun is 1781, and regular use of the verb doesn’t appear until the early 1900s. Of course, it’s always possible that there are earlier quotations that haven’t been added.

    The Ridger: I believe that in the heyday of Latin borrowing, new coinages were not always terribly systematic. People would take a Latin root and slap an English suffix on it to form a new word, bypassing the step of borrowing the root itself first and then deriving new words from it.

    The figurative use of impact strikes me as somewhat inflated business speak, but I don’t really object to it. I just prefer not to use it myself. I have no problems with the existence of the verb or the participle; I just associate them much more with the meaning of “strike” or “impinge,” especially the participle.

  4. I cheer impact as a verb, when it is used as a powerful alternative to synonyms that don’t have the same (excuse me) impact. Affect, impinge upon, strike, impact–all have their nuances.

    And, if you’ll allow me a link, here’s an essay in which I stick my neck out even further by declaring that, in the right circumstances, impact is a perfect verb: http://everythingyouknowaboutenglishiswrong.com/sample-impact.html

  5. Jonathon says:

    Good post, Bill. Thanks for sharing. And I have to confess that I’m jealous of the name of your blog and book—I wish I’d thought of it first.

  6. Henry says:

    The latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style has a section entitled “Good Usage Versus Common Usage” (Section 5.202). They suggest that we avoid the use of impact as a verb, except in a physical context. They say that the use of impact as a verb to mean affect is hyperbolic, as well as being widely regarded as a solecism.

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