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What to Do About ‘Impactful’?

I notice the word impactful. Sitting in various kinds of meetings throughout the week, I hear a whole range of things described as impactful: NCAA legislation, court decisions, online college courses, powerful people, climate change, and much more.

If I were asked to rate new words on a scale from 1-10 based on their aesthetic appeal (note: words’ aesthetic appeal in my opinion—this scale cannot possibly be objective), with 10 being the most appealing and 1 being the least, I would give impactful about a 3. In other words, I notice the word, and I don’t especially like it.

Now, let’s be clear: There is no particularly good reason for my displeasure with this word. There are plenty of similar adjectives in the language, formed by a noun + -ful to mean “full of or having a lot of [the noun]”: for example, playful, joyful, eventful. The adjective impactful is relatively new to the language, but that’s not a good reason for my distaste either—there are lots of other new words that I like (e.g., the wonderfully playful recombobulate). The meaning of impactful is a bit vague (for example, is the impact good or bad?), but the same critique could be made of well-accepted adjectives like influential. The word may sound business jargony to some, but the data no longer fully support this connotation, as I’ll get to.

Most standard dictionaries don’t include the word impactful , but that’s just because dictionaries haven’t yet caught up with speakers’ creativity on this front. The word already appears in Merriam-Webster online, with the specific definition “having the power to affect the feelings or sympathies”; but speakers who say impactful often use the word more generally to mean “having a lot of impact.”

From what I can tell, the word is also trending, a linguistic fashion on the rise. A quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that the adjective, while still rare, occurs eight times more frequently from 2010-12 than it did from 1990-94. Google Books NGram Viewer demonstrates an even more dramatic trend.

impactful

The word now appears regularly in The New York Times and not just in quoted material, but you can certainly find impactful in quotes. For example, the June 23, 2013, article “A Multiplicity of Magazine Covers, and Just as Many Reasons” by Stuart Elliott includes the following: “’It’s hard to find something with the power of a magazine cover’ to attract attention, Mr. Hartman said, so ‘when you bring out a surprising version of that cover, it can be very impactful.’”

And just last week, Eric Wilson used impactful in his own prose in the Times article “When Hippies Walked the Runways,” an attempt to answer the question of who is more stylish, punks or hippies. He writes: “At least we have some indication of which was more broadly impactful in its own time, and which for posterity, thanks to a pair of coincidentally timed museum exhibitions.”

The relatively rapid rise in popularity of impactful may result in prescriptive attention, and impactful already appears on some lists of “errors” in English usage (see, for example, this Web site by Paul Brians, emeritus professor of English at Washington State University). The most popular definition on Urban Dictionary reads as follows: “A nonexistent word coined by corporate advertising, marketing, and business drones to make their work sound far more useful, exciting, and beneficial to humanity than it really is.” Of course, defining a word that people know and have looked up as “nonexistent” makes no sense. The word most certainly exists—and no longer just as corporate jargon but as a term of more general use.

So, to return to the title of this piece, what to do about this word? The answer: nothing. I usually keep any negative reaction I might have to new words to myself and have made an exception and written about it here for a couple of reasons. First, I think linguists should be honest about the fact that while we embrace language change in general as a natural and inevitable part of living languages, there may be a few changes that strike us as less aesthetically pleasing than others. That’s natural too. I find myself sometimes thinking, “Really? The language is really going to change that way?”

Second, I want to emphasize that my personal opinion on the aesthetics of impactful should not justify my telling other people not to use the word. The word is now in general use—it does not appear to be, contrary to Urban Dictionary, a term of corporate jargon. I can choose not to use it, but even that will probably be short-lived; give me another couple of years and I will probably have gotten the hang of impactful and may not even notice it anymore.

If and when I’m asked on a survey for the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel (I have been a member since 2005) whether impactful is acceptable in formal written usage, I will say yes. Because, as the data above show, it is. I will bow to the data, not to my personal opinion.

I will also listen to history. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin didn’t like colonize. Dean Alford despaired over reliable in the 19th century. And in 2013, Anne Curzan thought impactful was not very pretty. These opinions about new words will all look quaint in retrospect.

We can and should have smart, critical conversations about usage—about, for instance, clarity and rhetorical effectiveness. If impactful still strikes you as ineffective jargon, then avoid it—but realize that it will not strike everyone that way. Rhetorical effectiveness and clarity are not static, and we should recognize when an opinion about a new word is just that—a personal opinion.

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