Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Impact Epidemic

Impact your world proclaims a CNN member website.  Is their astronomy news associate identifying an interstellar collision?  Is a military affiliate recounting the tremors of war?  Perhaps some hard-hitting football coverage follows the headline?  No, the popular news outlet has misused the verb “impact” to identify their philanthropic branch.  CNN is not alone, though.  The verb has infected term papers and pop songs, lab reports and presidential speeches.

So what do we know about this word that has quietly invaded and conquered our lexicon?

Impact is a verb which describes an instance of forceful contact, but in the specific form that interests us, it is figurative.  This means that it is used to describe something other than, say, a collision of a pumpkin with the street.  The pumpkin literally impacts the ground, whereas a poignant speech figuratively impacts a person (unless, of course, they are seated too near to a slavering orator.)

Sometimes figurative language can add variety or give a new perspective on a well worn image.  The starlight danced across the surface of the pond.  Here “danced” surprises us, because starlight has no body with which to dance, but its reflection shifting from ripple to ripple may resemble the movement.  It has special power to say what the more literal verb, reflected, could not.

However, “impact” has lost that special power.  The impact of “impact” is diminished, because our brains no longer connect its figurative form to its literal form, as in: the grandmother’s love impacted the boy’s life the way a meteor impacts and redirects another.  Instead, “impact” has been worn out by overuse, and we only perceive that the grandmother’s love vaguely changed the boy. 

So how do we know when to use impact and when to toss it out?

Here is an easy check:

Are you describing a boxing match?
A meteor shower?
A car crash?
Sammy Sosa?

No?  Then it may be a good idea to replace those “impacts.”  Fowler’s Modern English Usage condemns figurative use of the verb, because it has become technical jargon.  Remember, a physical collision is an impact, but for anything else there is probably a better word.

But what is that better word?

What probably fits best is either the verb “affect” or the noun “effect.”  That pair is the true one-size-fits-all.  If you go cross-eyed over a and e, there is still hope.  There are many more words at your disposal that will do just as well.  Instead try, change, sway, touch, influence, or move.

For the science majors— whose grumbles I can already hear rising from the verb-shaped voids in your lab reports— I will beat you to the question:

“Why do I have to worry about the “English details?”  All the data, charts, and graphs give me enough trouble.”

I answer by sharing an instance in which English and the use of “impact” is a big deal:

Previous crash test results were disastrous, but recently the airbag made a big impact on the dummy.

Would you ride in that car or not?  Was the test dummy cushioned or crushed?  We see that it is not the poets who have more to lose through careless language.  At worst their poems are banal, while those in scientific fields must be clear or jeopardize the safety of their coworkers and customers.  It is for clarity that the English language has such great variety, and each word we choose affects our audience.

No comments:

Post a Comment