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A Word, Please: Don't let language cops impact your words

February 23, 2013|By June Casagrande

There are a lot of people out there who will think less of you if you use “impact” as a verb: A longer storm season will negatively impact tourism. Failure to study will negatively impact your grades. Technology will impact higher education.

Those are wrong, wrong and wrong, according to certain people.

Because they only recognize impact as a noun, some people would require you to say instead that a longer storm season will have a negative impact on tourism, failure to study will have a negative impact on your grades, technology will have an impact on higher education. In all these examples, impact is a noun. That's different from “Technology will impact higher education,” where impact is a verb.

For more than half a century, people have complained that any time you use a noun as a verb you're committing an error that actually causes the noun to lose its — I'll say it — impact.

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For example, in a 1986 column on the word “impact,” New York Times writer William Safire said “the former noun has been used so often in bored rooms that ‘impact on' has lost its punch.”

(Actually, I'm skeptical that he meant bored rooms instead of boardrooms. Weirder typos have happened. But the version I read did have “bored.”)

Safire wasn't alone in his views on the word “impact.” Nor has this idea fallen by the wayside. It's just as popular today as it was in the 1980s to take serious umbrage with anyone using impact as a verb.

A big part of their objection is the principle of the thing. Nouns are nouns, darn it, and using them as verbs debases the words themselves and the language as a whole. And this, in a nutshell, is why you should never take self-appointed language cops too seriously. They almost never bother to get their facts straight.

Here's the truth: Impact was a verb before it was a noun. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, it evolved first as a verb straight from the past participle of a Latin verb that also gave us impinge. And the first documented use of impact as a verb dates back to the year 1601 — centuries before people like Safire claimed the verb was an abomination emerging before their eyes.

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