The Problem with “Impacted”

I just came across this sentence in a news article: “Recent polls impacted her decision to support the president.”

Writing that sentence would be grounds for divorce in our house. Charlie and I have pledged never to put -ed on “impact” unless we’re referring to a tooth.

I hate impacted. Why not say affected, which sounds much more normal? (Actually there’s a good reason not to write “affected” either, but I’ll get to that later.)

A Detective Enters the Scene

There’s a delightful moment in one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories when Wolfe silently adds $100 to a bill because the client used the word “contact” as a verb. I’m not that picky (to tell you the truth, I use contact as a verb myself), but I applaud Wolfe’s (and Stout’s) passion for language.

As I said, impacted is grounds for divorce in our household. I always get rid of it when I’m editing, and of course I don’t use it myself (why wreck a perfectly good marriage?). Many people agree with me. In 2015, the American Heritage Dictionary noted that 78% of its prestigious Usage Panel voted it down. 

In case you’re wondering, almost all the members of the Usage Panel now accept contact as a verb – but it took a while to get there. Time marches on, and so does language.

It’s very likely that 50 or 100 years from now, all the setting-my-teeth-on-edge things I hate in the English language will probably become standard. Everyone will put the -ed on “impact” and write “all right” as one word, as the British do. (Recently a former student sent me an email with all right written as one word, testimony to my lack of success as an English professor.)

Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe lost the battle against contact as a verb, and I know that my campaigns against impacted and alright are hopeless causes.

Losing the Battle

I’ve already lost the battle against affected (in the sense of “changed” or – grrrrrrr – “impacted”). Hear me out, though. I think there’s an important point to be made.

Language is supposed to be powerful. Affected is a meaningless word. Let’s go back to my earlier sentence: “Recent polls impacted her decision to support the president.” Did the polls increase her support – or weaken it? The sentence doesn’t make that clear. That’s bad writing.

I always used to circle affected on students’ papers and ask them to substitute a more specific word. What they all did, of course, was to go to an online thesaurus and come back with “altered” or “changed.” Sigh.

I like to think that I’ve impacted the students who’ve attended my classes, but evidence suggests otherwise. (Is that the rustle of divorce papers I’m hearing?)

Front cover of a Nero Wolfe myser


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