To Make an impact, but not to impact?


Tweets and articles reporting the pet peeves of copy editors have been circulating widely and wildly during the past weeks. The annual conference of ACES, the American Copy Editors* Society, was held in Pittsburgh March 26-28. One of the standouts among editors’ pet peeves was disagreement on the use of the word impact as a verb. See link here.

This is nothing new. Many stylebooks, including The Associated Press and the Financial Times, discuss the use of impact. AP says to use it sparingly; FT does not condone it. In fact, impact is not the only noun to be denied verb status by stylebooks. Also included in this group is to author. Personally, I use impact as a verb informally, but admit that I “apologize” for its use in the company of editors. I tend to agree with stylebooks about author; I feel “write” is a better choice as a verb. But I totally cringe when I hear signature used as a verb. So we each have our limits, our personal levels of acceptability – our own pet peeves.

Is the use of impact as a verb such a linguistic sin? After all, the past participle form of the verb is used as an adjective, as in an impacted tooth or molar.

Actually this is probably a good time to introduce descriptivism vs prescriptivism. Or in plain language if you aren’t a language buff, what we really say and write vs what we have been told is correct. Now, I could say that I am a descriptive linguist which is basically redundant. Are there linguists who are not descriptive?

While I personally adhere to the descriptive view, I recognize the need for the prescriptive approach as well. Each and every thing properly in its place.

Do we need prescriptive rules? Probably. If we consider how unregulated English is now, and how much more so it could become, then we would do well to listen to editors’ advice. It’s like trying to hold back the classic tidal wave, but here of different forms, spellings, use of words, meanings. Maybe a little order wouldn’t hurt.

It impacted, she authored, he signatured. Can the message be understood? Yes. Is it good writing? It depends. Editors are not only concerned with the content of a message, but whether text is technically written well and flows smoothly. In truth, anyone can write. Few can write well. Editors and copy editors are there to help us all write better.

Again, the distinction is one of when and where to use which forms. We can have our local, personal, colorful English, but write formally in a consistent common standard. English is richer for the local dialects in plays, poems, literature and blogs. But remember to consider stylebooks and editors, at least when the goal is to have your writing accepted by a major publication.

*And yes, there is no apostrophe in their official name, according to their own website.

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