Stupid Neologism of the Day

People often use the verb “to impact” instead of “to affect” or the noun “impact” instead of “effect” because they can’t be bothered to remember the difference between affect and effect.

One self-styled writer tweets, “Yep, now those words [affect, effect] are being replaced in the lexicon with things that aren’t confusing (re: impact). Language evolution wins!”

Nope. There are few contexts in which “affect” and “effect”, used properly, might be confusing to the reader. If a writer can’t use “affect” and “effect” properly without unintentionally confusing readers, she shouldn’t be in the writing business.

There are occasions on which “impact” might be a better word choice than the noun “effect.” An impact is a strike or blow; while an effect might be gradual, an impact is sudden. While an effect might be subtle, an impact is blatant. If one thing has a sudden and noticeable effect on another, it has (or, preferably, makes) an impact.

By the same token, sometimes “to impact” might conceivably be a better word choice than the verb “to affect.” I’m a big fan of pressing words into unusual metaphorical duty. “To impact” (itself a neologism) also suggests violent contact (smack!), and might serve in place of “to affect” when one thing smacks metaphorically into another.

The Law of Requisite Variety dictates that a writer will write better if she knows more nuantially different ways to say “effect.”

All of this is by way of introduction to the stupid neologism of the day: impactful. As in, “Impactful Opening Statements” (link is to PDF of 2009 TCDLA Rusty Duncan Advanced Criminal Law Course agenda).

Why not “Effective Opening Statements”? (I favor “Affective Opening Statements.”) You might want your opening statement to make an impact on the jury — to strike them, to make an impression on them — rather than have an effect on them. Fair enough, I’ll grudgingly spot you the first two syllables. But if you’ve got to create a synonym for “effective”, why “impactful”?

Your opening statement isn’t really full of impact; you hope for it to make (or have) an impact on the jury. There are more and nearer analogues for impactive (active, effective, discursive) than impactful (harmful and dreadful come to mind). Impactive is a much less ugly word, avoiding the gear-grinding -ctf- sound of impactful.

Finally, impactive has linguistic legs. If you use impactive you’re following in the penstrokes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (in 1934) and William Faulkner (in 1942); if you use impactful you sound like one of the yahoos in marketing.

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0 responses to “Stupid Neologism of the Day”

  1. This post is cause for English majors everywhere to rejoice. Thank you, Mark, for striking a blow in the cause of good linguistics! I wish it might be more…impactful.

    I have found that the best way to effect a change in mindset in my juries during opening statements is to affect an English accent. Then they think I’m from a foreign country and, like, smarter or something. Oh, and remember the old motto: If you can’t impact the facts, impact the witness. If you can’t impact the witness, impact the table. Strange…I had never known that impact was also a British monetary unit!

    • Tarian,

      So many words. So confusing. I was thinking this morning, when it impacted me: your comment will be a really big impact. Thank you for impacting a blow for literary unconfusingness. We all learn from the school of hard impacts, but when opportunity impacts, we must impact when the iron is hot, or our readers will go on impact.

  2. Those linguistic legs are more accurately measured by how pedestrians are using the words than by the books the words show up in. Right now… yeah, impactful sounds like marketing jargon.

    But i think you’re being neglectful of the arbitrariness of language. Being respectful of beautiful tactful and graceful meanings surviving intact, regardless of phonetics, can lead us to accept many of the consonant clusters and suffixes that we might have otherwise discounted for no good reason.

    • Neglectful = showing (or having, as an intrinsic quality) neglect.
      Respectful = showing (or having, as an intrinsic quality) respect.
      Beautiful = having, as an intrinsic quality, beauty.
      Tactful = showing (or having, as an intrinsic quality) tact.
      Graceful = showing (or having, as an intrinsic quality) grace.

      Unlike grace, tact, beauty, respect, or neglect, impact is not an intrinsic quality. It’s not something that an opening statement shows but rather something that an opening statement makes on something else.

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