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Red Pen Diaries: "Impactful"

Apparently, "impactful" is a word (and by this I mean it's recognized by a handful of reasonably reputable sources).

I choose not to use it, however. I think it sounds horrible, like an impacted wisdom tooth or, heaven forefend, an impacted bowel.

I guess the days of saying, "That 'Hi, I'm a Mac' campaign sure had an impact" are gone; now it's all, "That 'Hi, I'm a Mac' campaign sure was impactful."

I cringe every time I hear "impactful." In my heart of hearts, I just want "impact" to be a noun. I prefer things to have an impact or make an impact or approach the point of impact; I don't want them to impact each other or behave impactfully.

Yeah, there's "impactive," but to these oh-so-sensitive ears, that's only marginally less offensive than "impactful." I guess I should consider myself lucky that "impactitudinous" hasn't caught on. This doomsday scenario was suggested by Mike Livingston, who commented about "impactful" on the delightful blog "You Don't Say," a place for requisitely bespectacled, bow-tied Baltimore Sun Copy Desk Director John E. McIntyre to write about "language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects." (McIntyre was recently let go by the Sun in a restructuring of their newsroom. His new blog can be found here.)

Because I'm a devoted fan of "The Wire," the final season of which starred The Baltimore Sun, and because John McIntyre is a former president of the American Copy Editors Society (and ignoring, rather generously, that he's a graduate of Michigan State University — go blue!), I will now quote from his blog entry "Oh, the impact":

"Given the dubious status of the word impact as a verb, which several authorities recommend against, and the lack of citations for impactful in standard references, The Sun's copy desk affirms ... that impactful may be used in direct quotes, if the writer insists on it, but not otherwise in the paper. This decision remains in effect until the word achieves a more secure purchase on the language, or the A.M.E. [Assistant Managing Editor]/Copy Desk is overruled by a Higher Authority."

Granted, McIntyre was writing in February of 2007 and I think we can say with crestfallen confidence that, like the jaws of a long-tailed weasel clamping down upon the neck of a hapless Arctic hare, the word has indeed achieved a more secure purchase.

I blame local news anchors, law enforcement and especially middle managers for ruining "impact," and I'm not alone. Regarding the latter culprits, suspected Pastafarian J. Spaghetti contributed this definition to UrbanDictionary.com on May 30, 2007 (evidently a watershed year for "impactful"):

"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. This term is most frequently used in 'team building' seminars and conferences in which said drones discuss the most effective ways to convince consumer zombies to purchase crap they clearly do not need or even want."
Unfortunately, I'm with Whitney Houston in believing that children are our future, and I thus fear a bright future for "impactful." As explained in the 1996 edition of The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English, quoted on Bartleby.com:
" ... Impact has been used as a verb since 1601, and its figurative use dates from 1935, allowing people plenty of time to get accustomed to it [I, for one, need more time]. It may be that its frequent appearance in jargon-riddled remarks of politicians, military officials, and financial analysts has made people suspicious. Nevertheless, the use of impact as a verb has become so common in corporations and institutions that younger speakers [that would be the aforementioned children] have begun to regard it as standard ... "
Kids these days. Go ahead — call me an old coot, a fuddy-duddy, a cantankerous codger, a linguistic Luddite. Use "impactful" with impunity. Just don't expect me to like it.

What verbiage makes you seize up? Vent in the comments below!


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 18th 2009, 4:53 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
"Impactful" - definitely yuck!
As is the use of "fun" in ways strange to my ears (& years!) - no longer just a noun or adjective! It just doesn't sound right as a verb - it seemed at first a very N. American habit, but of course it has reached the shores of Oz, too...
Monday May 18th 2009, 5:13 AM
Comment by: Virginia F. (Geneva Switzerland)
Agreed! It sounds like one of those words in job descriptions where the job in question is totally mysterious and incomprehensible.
Monday May 18th 2009, 5:48 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
I am with those who dislike it instinctively. However I feel that 'full of impact', although a literal meaning may be questionable, seems a useful phrase.
Monday May 18th 2009, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Dorothy G. (Canada)
As a fist is impactful, and a telephone is contactful. This granny feels the need to reach for the laundry soap to clean up the language.
Monday May 18th 2009, 12:23 PM
Comment by: Meggin M.
I'm with you. I've argued with people about the word 'impact'...I'm a fuddy duddy, too, I guess. Thanks for writing your great articles!
Monday May 18th 2009, 1:38 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I have to go back to read the whole article. I was astounded by this sentence, "he's a graduate of Michigan State University — go blue!), I will now quote from his blog entry."

He is either MSU or 'blue', take the word of a Wolverine alum! He'd be Go Green!

Ah, the things that can turn a reader's mind from the point of an article!

(I'm laughing so hard I don't know whether I'll be able to read, but I'll try!)
Monday May 18th 2009, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ah, a more careful reading leads me to believe that one or the other of the two authors is a Wolverine fan or alum! Go Blue! (But get better coaches, please!) My apologies to the authors.

I'm befuddled by so many usages now. The 'like' that tossed around so casually when someone has nothing to say, the 'no problem' instead of 'you're welcome'... the ubiquitous 'laying' around that the words 'lie' and 'lay' give rise to.

However, I've come to realize that the language will change and that perhaps those last two verbs will merge, or one will disappear, language evolution being what it is.

I try to stay 'unvexed', but it doesn't usually work!
Monday May 18th 2009, 2:30 PM
Comment by: Virginia F. (Geneva Switzerland)
I would never say 'You're welcome' - preferable nothing at all, but if obliged, then 'Not at all'. However I am mystified by the Wolverines etc.! A Cockney friend of mine is defeated by lay or lie, so I tell her to remember that we lay (something on) the table. But she reverts instantly to laying down for a siesta - nothing can be done about childhood conditioning!
Monday May 18th 2009, 4:31 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
To clarify, "Go Blue" is the 'war cry' of the University of Michigan (Wolverines).

The author referred to the columnist as being a graduate of MSU (Spartans) who would not appreciate 'Go Blue' being attributed to them.

I was mistaken in my first reading.

Okay, I shouldn't have mentioned it, but he did say 'Go Blue' implying that he is a Michigan alum.

That isn't a common usage expression beyond the state of Michigan, until those schools play!

Sorry for befuddling you.

I think I agreed mostly with everyone else. The small letter writer (who doesn't use capitals where most of us do) is doing what some other writers do. I mostly avoid them. But it's her choice, so I wouldn't put her down. She's obviously literate (otherwise).
Monday May 18th 2009, 5:26 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
The shudder runs from my teeth to my gastrointestinal tract. Of course, I find the corporate jargon grating anyway. My husband is a change implementation consultant, and much as I love him, I cringe at the lingo.
Monday May 18th 2009, 7:27 PM
Comment by: Cliff W.
Why add impact to a word that has an onomatopoeia effect? Communications presupposes that there is a community of shared meaning and experience. Perhaps, that assumption needs to discussed to make our vocabulary useful again?
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 3:52 AM
Comment by: Virginia F. (Geneva Switzerland)
Cliff, that is a brilliant idea! I fear it will go no further than this discussion, alas.
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 5:48 PM
Comment by: Patricia W. (Vancouver, WA)
Your article had an impactitudinous effect on me; I was literally impacted.

Yikes. The aforementioned sentence was intended to be humorous, but sadly it is typical of corporate-speak where perfectly good words are pumped with linguistic steroids until they collapse under their own multisyllabic weight and clumsiness. And then let's throw in a few incorrect usages --eh, hm, literally-- and voila, we have everyday language.

Thank you for defending "impact" and making the case for limiting "impacted" to a couple bodily malfunctions.

Other words on steroids that make me cringe are "utilized" as in "I utilized my pen," and "orientated" as in "He is orientated to the job."
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 8:28 PM
Comment by: Winda H. (Atlanta, GA)
I am having a love afair with the word "trejectory"; don't ask me why because I can't explain it. It just seems so on point and direct. Not able to work it into my everyday conversations without sounding like a I'm in forensics or working for NASA.

One word that I simply despise simply because people have collectively agreed to use it incorrectly is: myself. Why do people think that when they are speaking about themselves that they have to say "myself" rather than me or I? It literally makes my skin crawl.

Still haven't got on a handle on whether I can have "issues"? I heard that one thing that I cannot have is "issues."
Thursday May 21st 2009, 12:36 PM
Comment by: Julia R.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hey all,

Thanks so much for your comments -- they mean the world. And yes, the editor I quoted is a Michigan State grad (Spartan) and I'm a diehard University of Michigan fan (Wolverine); we say, "Go Blue!" (The team colors are maize -- it's pretty much yellow -- and blue.) Also, Winda, I have ranted about "myself" elsewhere in these pages. You are not alone, my friend.

Best,
Julia
Thursday May 21st 2009, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Greetings, Julia, from another Wolverine fan!
Tuesday May 26th 2009, 6:22 PM
Comment by: Aiman T. (Chicago, IL)
As medicine has impact on life, I looked in the Lancet and the BMJ, two very important medical journals. I found one occasion of "impactful".
Saturday May 30th 2009, 5:54 AM
Comment by: Kenneth H. (Swartz Creek, MI)
Julia and Simon,
"Impactful" insight! We could say that:
Impactful is a turd of a word,
Designed for the herd.
Hopefully, this impact will pass!
Sorry for your luck with both schools. I'm a Jayhawk fan that went to Mid-America Nazarene University (college in my day) but could never be a Pioneer. Something to do with the funky bonnett and covered wagon thing. Our players just couldn't win in those long dresses.
Would somebody please tell News Anchors that the word is "Supremists" not "Supremacists" as in; "White Supremists eat their young".
Saturday May 30th 2009, 11:25 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Kenneth, sorry about those dresses, but hey, the Greeks did wonderful things dressed in skirts. Short ones though.

Since 'White Supremacy' is the theory, is supremacist not the logical noun rather than 'supremist'?
Monday June 8th 2009, 6:31 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
"Verbiage" makes me grind my molars, if not technically seize up.
Wednesday June 10th 2009, 11:41 AM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
I've worked in a corporate environment for 25 years, but have never been comfortable with "impact" as a verb. Even as a noun, it always makes me think that something will get broken ("that project will have some impact on sales"). Given the financial situation, maybe that was correct.

Another bit of corporate jargon that makes me cringe is "an initiative" ("we're launching a new initiative") which makes me think that someone is about to start something they aren't going to finish.

And for Patricia, "Many writers utilize "utilize" where they should use "use."
Wednesday June 10th 2009, 7:53 PM
Comment by: Steven S. (Cambridge, MA)
"Impactful," like all corporate jargon, is designed to create the illusion of having said something, without having actually said anything at all, so that one can charge high fees for having said it. The same is true of "initiative," which generally refers to a collection of PowerPoints and spreadsheets that suggest a new product or service is in the works, though no such "offering" will ever see the light of day. "Platform" and "leverage" are other favorites; they act like blank spacers in a sentence where a manager feels something really ought to be said, somehow.
Thursday June 11th 2009, 4:02 AM
Comment by: Virginia F. (Geneva Switzerland)
Clearly we all agree that corporate use of language is clumsy and meaningless. How can we convince the guilty parties? I fear it would have to be through PowerPoint, spreadsheets, and pie-charts which have superseded good plain English and clear texts(except for four letter words, which are having a field day!) In Switzerland we suffer from 'le français fédérale', the language used by official German-speaking government organisations, translated into French, which is equally verbiose and incomprehensible. Hurray for the fellows who went all over America correcting apostrophes (Pete's Pizza's, Carlo's Chip's). But that is another story.
Thursday June 11th 2009, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
A friend of mine belongs to a group whose members actually send notices to papers, magazines and shops about their spelling and grammar mistakes. But I hadn't heard about the collection of apostrophes on this side of the pond! I know Lynn Truss has some hilarious examples of their misuse in the UK. I've seen plenty here.

Virginia, what's happened with the French language police and English expressions such as 'red card' and 'weekend'? There was a move to Francacize (word ?) them all!
Thursday June 11th 2009, 12:16 PM
Comment by: Virginia F. (Geneva Switzerland)
They have done their best, Jane, and there is an official French translation for everything now. Most of them are so unwieldy that they are only used in official communications as far as I can see! But some are quite neat such as 'couriel' (courrier électronique) for e-mail. However, language evolves according to the rules of those who use it, from the bottom upwards, and I fear that all attempts from the top down are doomed to failure in the long run.

The two Americans on a mission were, I believe, jailed a year or two ago or at any rate fined, when they corrected a board at the Grand Canyon which was a historical artefact, having been hand-painted in the 19th century. Bad mistake, but a pity all the same, they were really impactful!
Thursday June 11th 2009, 3:06 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the quick reply! What chance do you give couriel against e-mail? It's a pleasant sounding word, but e-mail could have taken hold.

My husband was born in France to French parents and only started learning English at the age of 16 after WWII. He has little patience for the attempt of the officials to hang on.

Years ago in Quebec, he was corrected in a restaurant for ordering 'pomme de terres', and told 'potates'.

Being sort of 'stuck' in another century, he's of the opinion that what we have here in Canada is not French, but Quebecois!
Thursday June 11th 2009, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
"Bad mistake, but a pity all the same, they were really impactful!
report this as inappropriate."

(I must learn the coding used here!)

We had a mistake with an apostrophe carved in limestone on a new bridge! Great pains (and money) were taken to correct it by officials. Perhaps that's what these fellows should have done.

Still they were 'impactful' as you say -- but 'impacted' too!
Friday April 2nd 2010, 6:00 PM
Comment by: Skye H.
People utilizing utilization. I'd rather hear shattering glass.

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Tone down the exclamation marks, please!
"Literally" can provide some oomph, but often at the expense of credulity.
A modest defense of non-literal "literally".