by Michael Bedford
Published at 2017-07-27
Language and the way we use it is undeniably fluid. One doesn't have to look far to find idioms and words that have changed their wording and subsequently their meanings over the years. Especially in the 21st century, words that were once nouns have now become noun/verb hybrids. Examples that immediately spring to mind are "to text," as in "I'll text you," and the teeth-grindingly common "to gift," as in "They gifted that to me."
In terms of idiom, the linguistic strength of "walking on eggs," which artfully illustrated tense situations in which people must "tread lightly," mutated over the years into the less descriptive "walking on eggshells," which only serves to illustrate a state of discomfort, if anything.
These kinds of linguistic mutations are nothing new to the lexicographer, editor, or writer, but they are variably frustrating to us linguistic professionals. Indeed, these kinds of changes simply illustrate the ongoing tension between subscribing to a prescriptive or descriptive view of language.
Indeed, prescriptivism vs. descriptivism was the topic of discussion in a September 2010 blog post from The Editing Company that used the word “impact” as an example. Almost seven years later and “impact” is still a topic of controversy.
I recently argued my position on the subject to a fellow editor when we met and exchanged opinions on the subject at a mutual friend’s birthday party (thrill-a-minute folks, we editors are): “Impact” implies collision, and if it's used as a verb then it should be used to describe impact, which results when two bodies collide, and not as a synonym for the correct verb “affect.”
In fact, the grammar-school spectre of affect vs. effect seems to be the root cause of writers’ backslide into the improper usage of “impact,” so it seems appropriate to review the correct usage of both “affect” and “effect.”
In almost all cases, “affect” should not be used as a noun. Generally, the only time one would use “affect” as a noun would be in a discussion about psychology, specifically emotional states. In this setting, “affect” refers to the emotions or desires of an individual—sociopaths are often said to have flat affects.
“Effect” when used as a noun refers to an outcome, e.g. “cause and effect.” “Affect” when used as a verb, as it is in most cases, refers to the process by which an outcome, or effect, is accomplished. “Effect” is also used as a verb when referring to making something occur, e.g. “They effected a change.”
“Impact,” when used improperly, avoids the affect vs. effect confusion, e.g., “That impacted (affected) me greatly,” and, “That had an impact (effect) on me.” Gone is the concern that one might use “affect” to mean “effect” or vice versa. Instead, one simply uses “impact.” Unfortunately, though this may seem easier, using “impact” this way engenders a lack of linguistic precision, something all writers and editors should seek to avoid, even descriptivists.
Some might accuse me of grammar pedantry in continuing to observe the traditional semantic boundaries of the word “impact.” After all, this is a distinction that few writers still observe. But, anyone who wields a pen or word processor should first, before casting off such seemingly pedantic traditions, consider whether or not their novel usage involves any level of semantic dilution.
And, using “impact” as a kind of shorthand workaround for both effect and affect dilutes the lexical meanings of three words. Rather than “impact” defining the result of a collision only, “impact,” by way of widespread imprecise usage has mutated into a catch-all for “effect,” “affect,” and “impact.” Meanwhile, “affect” and “effect” become increasingly obscure and, as a result, are used increasingly incorrectly.
You could say that the semantic dilution of “impact” is having a negative effect on my affect. Or, you could say that the effects of incorrectly using “impact” affect me. But, please, don't say that the incorrect usage of “impact” impacts me, unless you’re going to throw the book at me.