Misusing impact

Wide acceptance of the popular misuse of impact as a verb rolls along unimpeded throughout the English speaking world. We see, hear and read this egregious error and its variations nearly everywhere, it seems. Some of us who love our beautiful language and its stewardship believe, perhaps naively, that by using it correctly one may actually communicate with clarity what one wants to get across to one’s intended reader or audience. What a concept.

We turn to the respected Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for clarification of what the word impact truly means. Impact is first listed as a noun, and its first meaning is a collision. Wow. So when we say that a new law passed by a legislative body impacts citizens, we are saying that they and the new law are colliding. Bam. Crash.

OED’s second definition of the noun impact adds this: “The force exerted when one body collides with another.” But wait, there could be hope for those who prefer a more abstract meaning of impact. OED’s third definition of this noun is “the force exerted by the influence of new ideas.”

Yes, impact also may be used as a verb, but not in the way we think and definitely not the way it is commonly abused these days. The verb impact, it turns out, means “to pack or drive or wedge firmly together.” Think of that the next time you are tempted to write or say that some event has impacted you. What part of you has been wedged firmly with . . . what other thing?

Our language has a perfectly good word — affect —which should be used where so many of us insist on misusing impact as a verb. The new law affects citizens. I am affected by the change in the weather. How will the move to a different climate affect my allergies? See? Wasn’t that easy? No collision. No firmly wedging together. No bam or crash.

Impacted, with an ed, OED insists, is an adjective that expresses what happens to a tooth that becomes wedged in one’s jaw so it cannot grow through the gum normally. If that has ever happened to you, you know how painful it can be. Nothing that can compare, though, with the pain of reading or hearing the growing misuse and abuse of a perfectly good word and the addition of such offensive variations as impactful.

Mercy. When I hear that one, my teeth hurt.

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