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October 22nd, 2008

Impactful / more on amn't

by Barbara Wallraff

Erin Rupnick, of Schenectady, N.Y., writes: “Can you please explain to me the sudden increase in the use of ‘impactful’? I work in the advertising industry, and the word seems to be everywhere lately. It’s not in the dictionary, but a lot of copywriters use it. Isn’t there a better word?”

Dear Erin: The reason we’re seeing more of “impactful” is that the verb “impact” is turning up more and more -- as in, “A impacted B.” This isn’t especially good usage. Traditionalists greatly prefer “A had an impact on B” or “A affected B” or any of a number of other versions that would tell us what kind of effect A had on B. Well, too bad! The verb has settled in and invited the adjective to join it. That is, since A impacts B, A must be “impactful.”

Here’s a recent real-life example from Andrew Romano, a blogger for Newsweek. Discussing Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, Romano wrote: “But from a political perspective, the other part -- the anti-McCain, anti-Republican part -- will probably prove more impactful.” I would have written “have a greater impact” or “prove more important.” Romano’s online photo and bio suggest he’s in his mid-20s. “Impactful,” like many other new words, belongs to the young or the trying to be.

I doubt its rise is as sudden as you think. Another longtime project of mine besides this column is overseeing the invention of words for which people have put in requests. (You’ll find recent examples on a new project -- a blog for The Atlantic -- at http://barbarawallraff.theatlantic.com. Look for “Word Fugitives” entries.) One of the first fugitive-word requests I got, almost 10 years ago, was this: “Often after I’ve heard of something for the first time -- a food, a place, a person -- I start hearing about it everywhere. Shouldn’t there be a word for this?” The suggestion I championed was “deja new.” That coinage hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm, but, ironically, people keep having the experience and asking me, over and over, for a word to describe it. All of which I mention to explain that the experience of deja newness seems to be fairly common. I suspect it’s involved in your reaction to “impactful.”

Patricia Kerfoot, of Hampden, Maine, writes: “In a recent column you suggested that a person who wrote you probably misheard ‘an’t’ as ‘amn’t.’ I was raised among people of Scots-Irish ancestry who routinely used ‘amn’t,’ and believe me, I wasn’t mishearing them. I always thought it made a lot of sense grammatically.”

Dear Patricia: I stand corrected -- by you and other readers who made similar points. The Oxford English Dictionary Online is the ultimate resource for questions like this, and when I saw that it has an entry for “an’t” but not “amn’t,” I leapt to conclusions. Now, having just come back from a tour of the OED’s editorial operations, I realize that the editors haven’t gotten around to revising that part of the alphabet. They started working on the next edition at the letter “M,” not at “A.” So the coverage of “A” words isn’t as complete and scholarly as it will be in a decade or two, when the edition is finished. In the meantime, I’m glad to take your and other readers’ word for the existence of “amn’t.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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