Grammar Guerilla: Impactful And Efforting

Guerilla GorillaEnglish is a wonderfully flexible and acquisitive language. Estimates vary but as the British and European colonial powers that harvested antiques and riches from the Mediterranean, so English has harvested a significant number of words from a variety of sources. English is perfectly capable of adopting and creating new words as needed. This is particularly evident from the number of computer-related and social media oriented words that have entered English in the last 20 years. We commonly refer to our own memories (whether correctly is another question) as a hard drive. We often reboot enterprises. There is nothing about English that inherently opposes new words. Nevertheless, some creations are freaks that should not be allowed to flourish. One of these is the appalling novelty, impactful. It does not augur well for a word when it does not occur in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Apple Dictionary app (which used to be credited as The Oxford American Dictionary but is now just Dictionary) lists it as both an American and British word and defines it as “having a major impact or effect.” In a word (or a sound): Ugh. Having an impact is not an improvement. It is a jarring usage. If that is the affect you are seeking then have at it but if you are not seeking to draw attention to your use of an awkward, colloquial word then you will do well to avoid it.

To impact something or someone is to hit them. The expression, “to be impacted” is usually a medical or dental reference. Impacted wisdom teeth must be extracted with considerable force. The verb to impact comes from the 4th principal part (perfect passive participle) of the Latin verb impingere, “to thrust, dash, strike against.” An impact is a collision or some other violent encounter. The earliest use of impact as a verb had this sense or, in medical use, embedded.

The adjective impactful is formed by adding the intensifying suffix —ful in the same way it is added to the adjective wrong in wrongful: “She is facing a civil action for a wrongful death.” In this case, however, we should ask whether we need the adjective impactful? Does the word fill a need? Does it perform a function that other words do not? What seems to be meant most often by impactful is that something had a strong emotional (affective) effect. So we read and hear sentences such as “that movie was impactful” or “that book made a real impact on me.” If what we mean to communicate is that something moved us emotionally then there are alternatives. We have the noun affect and the adjective affective” or the verb “to move” or the verb “to influence” and the adjective “influential.” A good thesaurus (literally “a treasury” of words) will provide alternatives. If we want to describe an actual collision, then we have that word, and crash or strike.

The contemporary use of to impact and impactful seems to date to the 90s. If that is true it suggests something about the social and intellectual context in which it developed. The leading philosophical currents that swept across American campuses in the mid to late 1980s were self-described as “post-modern.” In reality they were hyper-modern. Modernity was characterized by a turn away from objective sources of authority (whether God in Scripture or God in the church) to the self. In Modernity humans became the measure of all things. Nothing about late modernity changes human autonomy. What did change in the shift from Modernity to Late (or liquid) Modernity was the rise of subjectivism. Instead of looking to relate claims to a universally accessible standard of reason (rationalism) or senses (empiricism) the culture turned inward. We gave up talking about “the truth” for “my truth” and “your truth.”

One corollary to the inward (subjective) turn is the felt need for more words to describe our subjective emotional experience. As Jay Adams noted years ago people no longer think or believe. They feel. “I feel that we should not build the bridge.” The language of emotional (affective) experience is regarded as non-threatening because it is not a claim about universal truth or about objective reality. In a world where everyone is entitled to their own reality and emotional autonomy (no feelings are ever bad no matter how murderous or lawlessly sexual they may be) it is acceptable to say “I feel” but it is more dangerous to say “the old bridge is failing. We should build a new bridge.”

To be sure, we have learned from the collapse of Modernity that all claims are made by someone, in a context, and limited in important ways. We don’t know things the way God knows them but we can acknowledge our limitations without descending into subjectivist weasel words: “I think that we should do x.” Did the writer really need to say “I think”? Isn’t that we why she said “we should do x”? Did she say it because someone else thinks it? No, of course she thinks x. We’ve fallen into using qualifying phrases such as “I think” or worse, “I feel” as a way of immunizing ourselves from criticism.  The popularity of the ungainly words such as impactful should signal to us the degree to which our language has become littered with emotive language.

Finally, a plea to sports-talk hosts. Please, for the love of all that is good about English, stop using the participle efforting. Your producer might be making an effort. She might be working to reach a guest but she is not efforting. That’s an ugly and unnecessary verbal noun. We still have striving, working, laboring, and even toiling. There is a lot of alternatives to efforting. Impactful may be so deeply impacted in the language that it can only be removed with surgery. Efforting, however, may not yet have taken root. Let’s kill it before it does.

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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Do you think the replacement by and large of traditional mediums of communication with social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and texting have anything to do with the lack of grammatical precision?

    With technological advances allowing us instant news and communication, It seems people are willing to sacrifice depth and accuracy for speed and grammar.

  2. The medium is the message.

    Electronic communication is, by its nature, ephemeral. You can always make it go away by pressing a button. Twitter is likely even more so due to the short message limit, its heavy use on eye-fatiguing mobile devices, and easy pseudonymity. Paper, in contrast, is starting to become seen as more trustworthy, because somebody bothered to write it down or print it out. It’s a medium of record.

    I also agree on speed. In Twitter and everyday speech, word-by-word precision is usually not crucial, and some slips are seen as inevitable, just because they are quick communication tools. Now think of a legal contract. In law schools, professors tell horror stories of contracts invalidated because somebody used the word “shall” instead of “will” and thereby bound a non-signing party by mistake. In my particular field of interest, you have to be careful when using the definite articles “a” or “an”, since they are considered as not limited to the singular. In Virginia, somebody got out of a traffic ticket several years ago by showing the “stop for a school bus” law was drafted to require the bus to stop. These things are (or at least should be) reviewed repeatedly by several people before being distributed, because it’s assumed that sloppiness can have consequences.

  3. THANK YOU for drawing attention to the gag-inducing term “impactful.” It amazes me how quickly it has achieved a wide acceptance!

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