Another word I hate

November 11, 2017 • 2:00 pm

As I recall, I heard this on the NBC Evening News the other night, and again on National Public Radio this morning. It is a dreadful word:

IMPACTFUL

Yes, some dictionaries have it, like Merriam Webster online, which defines it like this:  “having a forceful impact; producing a marked impression (impactful song lyrics, impactful humanitarian efforts)”

But seriously, does it sound good to say that “I found War and Peace to be a very impactful novel”, or “I heard Taylor Swift’s latest album that dropped today, and it was really impactful”? (There’s another bad word in there.) Is there any sentence in which that word sounds good?

Further, the word is imprecise, for it doesn’t really say anything about the nature of the impact. Was it good or bad? How did it affect you or the situation? It’s less precise to say, for instance, that “the last several paragraphs of The Dead were very impactful” than to say even that “the last several paragraphs of The Dead were deeply moving.”

Checking the online Oxford English Dictionary at the University of Chicago Library, my go-to source for words, I didn’t even find the goddam word:

It’s time to ditch this odious bit of English, chucking it in the bin with “grow” as a transitive verb not referring to plants, and “at that point in time” as a replacement for “at that time” or “then”.

136 thoughts on “Another word I hate

      1. Nothing worse than an impacted bowel. You want to be really careful with that. An annal fissure is no laughing matter. A long and painful recovery process rife with set backs.

        1. “An annal fissure is no laughing matter.”

          A tear in the fabric of space-time?!?

          EVERYBODY, FOR THE SAKE OF THE UNIVERSE, EAT MORE FIBER! YOU MUST EAT MORE FIBER!

          1. Or not enough time has passed to show the longevity of this word’s “usefulness”.

            One of my least favorite words was “Bling”. I don’t see or hear it as much now. I hope it’s dead. There are other pop culture words that hopefully will come and go, or change meaning:
            “dropping”.

            Sorry. This is in the wrong place.

  1. I checked OED as well.. doesn’t exist. I agree awful word…does not serve any true English grammatical purpose…but I’m English and understand language adapts…and dare I say it evolves…but not in this case.. not fit…

    1. One is well advised to take a couple of magnesium tablets at the same time that one anticipates consuming a bountiful bulk of cheese, so as to arrive at a meaningfully moving and peaceful pact with cheese.

      1. Also, I reasonably assume that, in this context, it is most desirable to be “pactful,” eh? (“Packed-full”?!?)

    1. Talking of Macs, the original classic system had a dialog box concerning an attempt to install a system older “than what you have” which made me cringe. Since then, “than what” seems to have become fairly common, and it still grates in my ears as my teachers (I was born and bred in England) would have been sure to use the ruler on my hand if I had used it again after being corrected once. “Than that which” is longer, but it is correct. “Than what” is wrong, wrong, wrong!

  2. Yes, language evolves. Changes we initially dislike become normal and accepted. It has been happening since language began, I am sure. It is always amazing to me how certain new words and phrases can be so negatively impactful on people; how can people hate a word or phrase so much? Of course I am no different. For example I hate the use of ‘terror’ for ‘terrorism’, and ‘mis-spoke’ for ‘lied’.

    1. Time is the great wheat/chaff separator. One may only hope that much of the business-speak, lol-speak, and millennial-speak will be consigned to the dustbin of language. However, I must admit I am a great fan of those far-out hippie phrases and 1920’s flapper/Bertie Wooster slang. This may be due to the fact that I love those two periods, but I’m willing to admit I would probably have hated it had I existed during either.

      1. One may only hope that much of the business-speak, lol-speak, and millennial-speak will be consigned to the dustbin of language.

        Kids today probably don’t know what a dustbin is, nor why a house would have so much dust they’d need a bin for it. And they’d recycle it in any case.

        1. As far as I know (born in England but lived mostly in the US), “dustbin” is the British English term for what Americans call a “trash can”. Perhaps someone who still lives in the UK can tell us whether it is still in common use there.

    2. You are quite correct. What would our language be if no new words were ever permitted? perhaps we should all just grunt at each other.

    3. The English language evolves much like a living creature:

      http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/11/how-english-language-has-evolved-living-creature

      On a note pertinent to this thread, baby names which typically are associated words we place with persons names can be extremely viral. A single girl’s name can spread across the country in less than a year. This shows that the influence of as few as one person can affect the evolution of language, if not naming.

      WEIT can have an influence on short term (1-5 years) usage of words, because if people are in enough agreement they can spread the message that a particular word choice is either not appropriate or at least aesthetically unpleasant. And that can have a direct influence on use and future popularity of word use.

  3. I think the word has its place, as in ‘I had to have an enema. My stool was really impactful’. I don’t think it’s appropriated to use it when describing the work of James Joyce. Taylor Swift, on the other hand…

    1. The enema itself may be impactful, but surely the stool would be impacted (both in consistency and by diet).

      Taylor Swift can be impactful like a fortnight of constipation. I’ll give you that.

      1. I think there’s a medical condition known as “impacted feces”(or “fecal impaction”) that goes well beyond simple constipation. My wife was an ER nurse for years. I’ve heard stories. I’ve done my best to forget them, too.

        1. I remember a housecall in London in 1985, to a lady I hadn’t met before who was dying on lung cancer. She was impacted (or rather, her bowel was full of impacted stool) and she had been stuck, half in and half out for a couple of days. A digital disimpaction was required, and she was the most grateful patient I’ve ever had. Funny how the least glamorous jobs are sometimes the most valued.

    1. Please not. It gets misspelt as “effect”, and to object to that leads awful depths of linguistic ignorance.

      1. “Affect” and “effect” are perfectly reasonable words. Which a depressingly large number of people badly misuse.

    1. ‘Impact’ or ‘impacted’ makes me think of a vertebra or other bone ‘impact fracture’, that kind of thing. ‘Affect’ and ‘effect’ can be even more confused by thinking of ‘afferent’ and ‘efferent’ neurological defects. A parallel world is evoked by terms like “Relative Afferent Pupillary Defect” (aka RAPD), yes, that does exist, not kidding!

    2. And even “affect” can come across as vague and mealy-mouthed. “If you have been affected by anything in this programme, our website contains details of organisations that may be able to help” is a frequent accompaniment to anything remotely challenging on the BBC. It becomes quite annoying after a bit.

    3. “Impact” is a noun. I barely tolerate it as a verb. As a derived adjective or adverb it is truly obnoxious.

      IMNSHO

      cr

  4. That word sucks.

    As for the other word : Don’t you know? [sarcasm on] Hate Has No Home Here! The sign on my lawn SCOLDS you for using that dirty word! [sarcasm … eh, let’s leave it running and see what happens]

  5. Jerry, I would not like to infringe on your pet peeves, but I never heard or read the word ‘impactful’ before this post. I hope that might be a small consolation?

      1. I could swear I remember you posting about your hate for this word in the past. Perhaps it was in a comment or a larger post on several other peeves, bugbears, and peccadilloes?

        1. The post’s impact on your memory could have been more impactful.

          You know, I feel like I need a shower after typing that! 😉

  6. The verbed noun that currently galls me is “tasked,” though it does seem to have a more legitimate history than my ears care to accept.

  7. I guess we can console ourselves by reflecting that most such trendy usages soon die out, either because trends move on, or because they get mocked and laughed out of existence.

    If we all decide to take the p*ss out of anyone we hear using the word “impactful”, it should die out sooner rather than later.

  8. LOL dictionaries are describers of language, not its arbiters. If enough speakers of the language accept and use the word (and its conventional meaning), it’s part of the language, like it or not.

    A better measure of the word might be Google N-grams, which shows that the word really took off in the 1970s: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=impactful&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cimpactful%3B%2Cc0

    1. Very interesting. Is there any way to find out what kinds of books used the word? I’m wondering if they were mostly academic books, perhaps from particular fields…

  9. Hm, I’ve never heard or read this word before either – but: I was immeditaly remembered to the german word “wirkungsvoll”, which is a composition adjective of ‘Wirkung’ (impact) and ‘voll’ (ful). impactful seems to be a retranslation of the german adjective wirkungsvoll = impactful

    1. The funny thing is: if I look for the English word for “wirkungsvoll” in the google translator, then I get ” effectively”, as well as more variants like “efficiently”.

      But if I look for “impactful”: then as a German translation only one variant is offered: “wirkungsvoll”
      So after this google field trial, I would almost bet that “impactful” is a loan translation of German “wirkungsvoll”.
      I’m sorry for your language – on the other hand, “wirkungsvoll” in the German language is quite popular and is often used, maybe there’s now also a need for in American English, who knows …

      1. Connoisseurs of German may like to know (apropos an early thread in this discussion) that the word for ‘constipation’ is ‘Verstopfung’.

  10. Hell, I’m still not fully accommodated to “impact” as a verb. Mind you, I’ve got no general objection to nouns being used as verbs or verbs, nouns. There’re plenty of fine plain-English words that function as both — fight, ache, and walk, for example. And I don’t have a problem per se with making modifiers out of either — as long as the new coinage fills a need, or brings some freshness to the language. Too often, however, people concoct them them without purpose, merely as a means of (in)elegant variation.

    I agree that “impactful” is an abomination, since it lacks euphony and fails to convey appreciable information. If it’s to be used at all, it should be limited to events that have a big impact, like comets and meteors. (“That Shoemaker-Levy 9 was some impactful, amirite?”)

      1. Wasn’t he proconsul under Caligula?

        I believe the full name, under the Roman tria nomina convention, was Spurius Impactous Biggus.

            1. Many men named Richard are addressed as Dick. I’ve never heard of anyone – including the one bearing that name – taking offense at that (whatever they might otherwise silently think when hearing it). I wonder why, when seemingly significantly more nuanced and less “impactful” locutions evoke offense.

              An old locution from my grandfather’s time – pre-1960/pre-JFK era when many if not a majority of U.S. men wore dress hats – was, “Tight as Dick’s hat band,” whether describing the snugness of a garment’s fit, or possibly someone being tight with his money. I heard him say that more than a few times over the years, finally being told that it was a reference to a condom. How many today immediately recognize what a hat band is?

              In the 70’s I was in a high school play (written in the late 40’s). A detective comes on stage, introducing himself to the other characters by saying, “I’m a dick” (typical 40’s slang for a detective, I gather). Of course, the students just howled at that, and we for sure knew they would. We had debated amongst ourselves, out of earshot of the matronly teachers directing us, whether he should rather say “detective.” We decided to remain faithful to the script, and let the chips fall where they might.

              1. Brings to mind Dick Private, Private Dick, a character in the Firesign Theatre – derived album Roller Maidens from Outer Space.

                I show my age.

        1. I had forgotten him. Well to avoid confusion then, what about impactual? We can discuss the impactuality of laws, actions, etc. Then we utilize the most impactual.

  11. I hate the phrase “gone viral” when talking about videos, memes, tweets, etc. I viscerally cringe each time I hear/see it.

      1. I assume – but I can only speak for myself here – it is this dominant association with the virus that is caused by this word, which leads to emotional rejection. Memes are neutral and can easily be positively associated. But virus is not neutral, but especially negatively occupied. Nevertheless, one usually uses “viral” to express something positive: a video is well received and therefore is widely used. And to compare that to the spread of a virus – that’s the problem with the word “viral”.

        1. If you dislike “gone viral” for reasons of scientific liberty, you surely also dislike “reaching critical mass” and making a “quantum leap” :)?

  12. “At that point in time” (It’s redundant – At that point suffices!) reminds me of one I hate – constructions like: “In the year 1927…” and the like. “In 1927…” works just fine. What the hell else would 1927 be but a year. Even worse: “In the year 806BC”

    1. Dude, what happened in the year 806 BC to get so worked up about? That is even before Buddha or Confucius! Was there an impactful event? (another small consolation: spellchecker underlines ‘impactful’ as a mistake).
      Note, I’ve nothing against going viral, pretty apt description, like a virus that infects and spreads, without any positive action such as mating. A meme does the same…

      1. Just a random year ending in BC. If it ends in BC, the number IS as year. Even more than a non-suffixed number that any normal person would take as a year. That’s all.

        Did I say something about viral?

        1. No you didn’t say anything about going viral, that was Jake, but I thought that it might be more impactful if we connected the memes in a kind of linguistic intersectionalism.
          If I got you right we live in the year 2017PC? (post christ)? 🙂

  13. When I first read this post, I found the examples given compelling but, at the same time, I felt that there were better uses of the word out in the world. Since I have great faith in the quality of writing and editing in The Economist, I googled the word on their site only. I found a few doubtful uses of “impactful” similar to those given here but there were some that indicate a more reasonable usage — to indicate that something has multiple, unspecified impacts or, more simply, impact in general without giving specifics. Saying the Beatles were an impactful band means they affected society and culture in many ways. On the other hand, saying the Beatles had impact leaves one wondering what specific impact the author had in mind. Any takers?

    1. Didn’t Tricky Dick use to say “at this/that point in time”? Bill Clinton might have said “I did not have sex with that woman at that point in time.”

      Price point is another exp’n that drives me nutz.

      1. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: the phrase “at this point in time” is (as Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler used to say) “no longer operative.”

        The Nixon White House gave us some horrid coinages, especially in its waning days.

      2. Price point cannot be subbed by price, if that’s what annoys you.
        It emphasises that the price is taken relative to other prices, on a scale or spectrum if you like.
        $1.50 is a price, but not a price point. In fact I think price point usually comes simply as “high” or “low”.
        “the iPhone is sold at a price point that makes it a premium product” can be understood by everyone without worrying about converting from an arbitrary USD amount.

        1. I have recently heard so many people use price point when price would be perfecly adequate. I think they are trying to sound unnecessarily erudite. Never heard it at all before five or so years ago.

    2. Spatial metaphors for time are pretty much universal. You can bring appointments forward or push them back. You can look ahead to the future or back into the past. I don’t think describing a ‘point’ in time is any different.

    3. Sorry, “period of time” is not a tautology. In fact, it is very different from “point in time”. Using concepts from computer programming to make things more concrete, a data type representing a point in time (an absolute location in time space) is very different from one representing a duration (a difference between two points in time) which is also different from a time period (a start time point and a duration or, alternatively, start and end time points). Just saying.

      1. I think the (valid) objection is to substituting the periphrastic “at this point in time” for “now,” and “at that point in time” for “then.”

        I think people are also pointing out that, as to this particular usage, the “in time” is often redundant. There’s no difference, in context, between “at that point in time, he left” and “at that point, he left” (though neither is as succinct as “then, he left”).

      2. How is “period of time” not a tautology?

        Implicit in the word “period” is concept of a time interval, it is defined as an interval of time.

        Can there be a period of anything other than time?

        All instances using the phrase “period of time ” can be replaced by the single word “period”. Excepting the unique US usage of the word for a punctuation symbol.

        1. Dictionary.com (my bold, I’m sure other dictionaries are similar

          Period
          noun

          1. a rather large interval of time that is meaningful in the life of a person, in history, etc., because of its particular characteristics:
          a period of illness; a period of great profitability for a company; a period of social unrest in Germany.

          2. any specified division or portion of time:
          poetry of the period from 1603 to 1660.

          3. a round of time or series of years by which time is measured.

          4. a round of time marked by the recurrence of some phenomenon or occupied by some recurring process or action.

          5. the point of completion of a round of time or of the time during which something lasts or happens.

          6. Education. a specific length of time during school hours that a student spends in a classroom, laboratory, etc., or has free.

          7. any of the parts of equal length into which a game is divided.

        2. My point was that there are other measurements related to time than a period and, therefore, sometimes “period” is needed to make things clearer. However, I do see your point about replacing “period of time” by “period”. As with all things language-related, it depends on context.

    4. Re:

      To which I would add the tautology “period of time”.

      Still, “of time” is a clarifier. We could have “period of time” or “period of punctuation,” no?

  14. And here we see the battle between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. OED tend toward the prescriptive, and M-W towards the descriptive. Yes, language evolves, but the prescriptive forms (which are usually those that are commonly accepted and understood across a broad audience) follow by several years to several decades.

    What I tell my students is that, if they want to be understood and respected in a professional environment, follow the prescriptive guidelines, and avoid out-of-field slang. When texting with our friends, go with whatever you feel comfortable with.

    1. I don’t think the descriptivists would disagree with you, enl. Pace the prescriptivists, there aren’t any hard-and-fast “rules” regarding grammar and usage — particularly none worth looking for in musty old guides and manuals.

      What there are, are conventions that educated and articulate writers and speakers have worked out over time to enhance communication. If people (like your students) wish to be thought of as educated and articulate, they’ll learn what those conventions are, and employ them as needed to enhance their own communication.

      That’s not to say that those conventions must be followed ineluctably. Hell, I’m by no means holding myself out as any type of beau idéal of the written word, but in all but the most formal settings, I break them all the time, including in comments here — slang, elided words, non-standard constructions, enallage, that sort of thing. But to break the conventions you must first know what they are, of course, and one should always clue the reader that it’s being done intentionally, rather than by mere solecism.

      1. Pedantry alert! I don’t think it makes sense to say something must be (hence logically might not be) followed ineluctably. The ineluctability is not proscriptive.

  15. Jacques Derrida had this to say about ‘impactful’.

    “Sexuality is meaningless,” says Derrida. In a sense, ‘impactful’ promotes the
    use of the precapitalist paradigm of consensus to modify and read class.
    My essay on dialectic narrative holds that the collective is part of the
    dialectic of art, given that language is interchangeable with sexuality.

  16. Maybe it should be “impactive” like effective or affective.

    However affect and effect are already established verbs. To impact is already an uncomfortable verb, so extending it to an adjective makes it worse.

    Maybe medicine is to blame: as in “impacted bowel” which should probably have better been “compacted bowel”.
    I found out while translating an Italian book on gardening that those machines that compress earth during roadworks etc (compaction machines, tampers, ground hammers etc) are usually called “costipatori” in Italian, i.e. constipators

    That suggests also that if something can have impact then its effect is “impaction”.
    However since compaction usually becomes “compression”, then impaction should become “impression”.
    So “this will impact sales” would become “this will impress sales”.

    Seriously though, it would be better to use “affect” which is already concise, effective and widespread, instead of forcing “impact” into the same slot.

  17. I have to say I dislike the sound of this word. According to Random House Unabridged it entered the English language roughly around 1960-65. They also have a longgggg note defending it, while noting that a lot of folk really don’t like it. (See http://www.dictionary.com/browse/impactful?s=t) I prefer “hard-hitting”, “stunning”, or “rousing” (etc.) myself.

    I am much more sanguine about “at that point in time”. It focuses on a specific moment, whereas “then” simply sets events in sequence. It also conveys simultaneity, whereas “then” implies shortly later.

    A book on the Watergate hearings is entitled “At that point in time” and it was a phrase frequently used IN the hearings to determine exactly when Nixon knew and/or did certain things. Exactly the right context for that phrase.

  18. Since we’re on pet gripes – “Passionate”. As used in employment or trade.

    “We are seeking an applicant who is passionate about proctology” [/lawn care/sanitation maintenance/spreadsheet data entry]. Wtf?

    “Our dedicated staff are passionate about your car”. I’d sooner they were competent, frankly, and skip the histrionics. Do I get a discount if they’re merely workmanlike?

    cr

      1. Different strokes for different folks…

        Though perhaps that phrase would be more appropriate regarding a passion for prostate exams.

  19. I am actually more interested in the spelling of goddamn. Apparently I have been spelling it wrong. Jerry spells it in a different way than I have.
    “Checking the online Oxford English Dictionary at the University of Chicago Library, my go-to source for words, I didn’t even find the goddam word”

    I have spelled it goddamn all my life. What do I know?

    1. Tinkers, horses, rivers, and pudenda have dams; damns are God’s. Dam is often used as a variant spelling of damn that is supposed to be less blasphemous. It’s a Bowdlerization. I only ever see goddammit, for that exact reason.

  20. Agreed. “Impactful” is both unnecessary and ugly. I would suggest “at the end of the day” and “going forward” as phrases assiduously to be avoided.

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