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Re: Grammar

Another reader disagrees with the Masked Grammarian.

While I am sure the Masked Grammarians mean well, I must (speaking as a professional copy editor and certified word nerd, myself) take issue with their correction of your use of "impacted."

Such (all too widespread) criticism is a regrettably, and pointlessly, conservative reaction to the inevitable changes that occur in all languages that are not dead or dying, and have a sufficient number of speakers. The MGs are surely aware that the vibrancy of the English language is due in large part to its high degree of willingness to continually transform itself according to the needs of its speakers.

Any given usage of a word that is, as the MGs concede, "well-accepted," widely used, and commonly understood to mean what you intend it to mean is not, self-proclaimed grammar snobs to the contrary, "incorrect." Such a critique is essentially asserting that the English language (or any language) should not change, which is akin to trying to hold back the tide -- or to wishing that a language would die, which is surely not what the MGs intend.


By Ezra Klein  |  March 11, 2010; 6:48 PM ET
 
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Comments

According to this language log discussion, the Masked Grammarian is also mistaken about the history of the word "impact." It has been a verb for over 400 years. Over the past century, the meaning of both the noun and verb of "impact" have expanded from a physical meaning (involving physical contact or collision) to also include the more figurative meaning of "influence." Arnold Zwicky at Language Log links to a Merriam-Webster dictionary of usage which gives more details.

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1394

http://books.google.com/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&pg=PA526&vq=impact&dq=merriam-webster+dictionary+of+English+usage&source=gbs_search_s&cad=0

Posted by: vince432 | March 11, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

If we're picking the nits of the Masked Grammarians, they might better be taken to task for "verbified" an ugly construction used by those who prefer verbiage to words.

Why not just "verbed"? It's cleaner, shorter, much more elegant, and in keeping with gerunds and gerundives. Ave Cicero!

Posted by: tomcammarata | March 11, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

listen to the linguist, not the nun

Posted by: gtevans | March 11, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Pretty much, except the word "irregardless." It is always wrong.

Posted by: evvywevvy | March 11, 2010 7:29 PM | Report abuse

"Impact" may or may not be 'correct' English, but it's an ugly verb, and among pundits and corporate-types it seems to have completed replaced "affect".

Why? What is so wrong with "affect"?
(or "have an impact on" for that matter)

Posted by: Modicum | March 11, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Someone once wrote in GQ something like, "History, I decided, is a prison and etymology a diseased seductress."

Posted by: czrisher@gmail.com | March 11, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

But let's not start believing that "well-accepted" is correct usage or we'll have lost ground as a net result.

I'm not convinced the adverb "well" requires a hyphen to work correctly with its adjective "accepted."

Too bad there's not someone we could ask.

Posted by: rosshunter | March 11, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

"Why? What is so wrong with "affect"?"

People can't remember if it's supposed to be "affect" or "effect", so they go with "impact".

Posted by: slag | March 11, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

'Impact' as a verb is perfectly correct when used to mean having a more forcible effect. It has a stronger meaning that simply "to affect".

Ezra's sentence: "Your lives, I imagine, will not be much impacted by eight posts rather than 15" is probably not a good use of the word 'impacted' and 'affected' would have been the better choice. But in the sentence "Failure to pass this bill will negatively impact the careers of several Democrats" there's nothing wrong with the use of 'impact'. To substitute "affect" is not the same; it's weaker.

The idea that nouns can't be verbs is just silly. The real question is whether word choice enhances or diminishes clarity.

Posted by: cusanus | March 11, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the Masked Grammarians; it's sloppy language. Originally the expression was "to have an impact". And then the sloppy types decided to verbify it in this rather inelegant way.

Language can do better.

Posted by: leoklein | March 11, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Nuts.

Posted by: pj_camp | March 11, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Ah, the age old descriptivist/prescriptivist debate. Shall I just quote Samuel Johnson at length? I shall:

"There is in constancy and stability a general and lasting advantage, which will always over-balance the slow improvements of gradual correction. Much less ought our written language to comply with the corruptions of oral utterance, or copy that which every variation of time or place makes different from itself, and imitate those changes which will again be changed, while imitation is employed in observing them.

This recommendation of steadiness and uniformity does not proceed from an opinion that particular combinations of letters have much influence on human happiness; or that truth may not be successfully taught by modes of spelling fanciful and erroneous: I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote."

Don't misread me when I say this (I'm a political progressive), but what Johnson writes seems to me like a pretty good defense of a skeptical conservatism in general.

I think David Foster Wallace's brilliant essay on American grammar and usage also defends the position of what he calls "SNOOTS" well: Changes in used vocabulary happen like changes in dress habits, yet there are still issues of decorum about how you should dress, and the same goes for word-usage.

There are some modes of dress that I find absolutely inane. If others choose to go along with those modes, more power to them, but I reserve the right to find it silly. "Impacted" is, for me, the verbal equivalent of a David Beckham hairdo.

Posted by: agowen100 | March 12, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse

I suppose the Washington Post is entitled to its own set of nattering nabobs, but those of us who still revere the memory of the late William Safire, the beloved language maven of the New York Times, and treasure our status as Lexicographic Irregulars, would consider the Masked Grammarians to be a set of nouveau nitpickers.

The Lexicographic Irregulars have a special forces unit. The Gotcha Gang. If any other body of carpers wants to establish legitimacy, let them get approval from the Word Court (Atlantic Monthly).

Posted by: su10 | March 12, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

"Impact as a verb is perfectly correct when used to mean having a more forcible effect. It has a stronger meaning that simply to affect. "

Fair enough, but it seems that in journalism and some other forms of writing 'impact' isn't being used in this limited sense; it has started to completely eclipse 'affect'.

I also personally prefer 'have an impact on'. If you want to emphasise a forcible effect it allows you to write 'have a big/huge/forcible impact on'.

"People can't remember if it's supposed to be affect or effect, so they go with impact."

Yes, laziness seems like the most likely explanation.

Posted by: Modicum | March 12, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

"Impact as a verb is perfectly correct when used to mean having a more forcible effect. It has a stronger meaning that simply to affect. "

Fair enough, but it seems that in journalism and some other forms of writing 'impact' isn't being used in this limited sense; it has started to completely eclipse 'affect'.

I also personally prefer 'have an impact on'. If you want to emphasise a forcible effect it allows you to write 'have a big/huge/forcible impact on'.

"People can't remember if it's supposed to be affect or effect, so they go with impact."

Yes, laziness seems like the most likely explanation.

Posted by: Modicum | March 12, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

I'm with the prescriptivists and the Masked Grammarians on this one. To argue that a change is *good* because - and only because - a change has *happened* is unconvincing. This is as true in language as in any other sphere of life.

I've found that some descriptivists muddy the waters by copping a pose of individualism and freedom over and against rigidity and tradition, but that doesn't make the argument any more persuasive.

Agowen100, you're my new hero. Thanks for that Johnson quote.

Posted by: andrewmiller2007 | March 12, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Agowen: Quoting Samuel Johnson describing (eloquently) the need for greater stability in language is a little unfair, since the language today is much more stable than it was in Johnson's time. Big reasons are that we have more literacy today and also that we have reliable, widely available dictionaries--and of course Johnson's defense of stability was written in the context of explaining why he was writing a dictionary. Before Johnson's time, words could be spelled practically any way (look at Shakespeare) and definitions and usage practices were also quite variable. No so much any more.

So quoting Johnson to bolster one side in today's debate is a little like Republicans using JFK to argue for lower taxes. When JFK lowered taxes, the top rate was 90 percent.

Posted by: KWeberLit | March 12, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I can live with "impact" as a verb. But the adjective "impactful" is a bridge too far.

Posted by: randrewm | March 12, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

This emailer is clearly just trying to antagonize the MGs. Why else would a professional copy editor split an infinitive ("to continually transform") in an email about grammar hawks?

Also, this whole debate is really more about usage than about grammar, per se, but for what it's worth, "impacted" does make you sound like a consultant trying to "grow" someone's business using "synergy."

Posted by: rjohnson2842 | March 12, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Masked Grammarian is right. Yes, language is dynamic and tastes change; however, precision in language matters too. Musicality, flow, etc also matter.

To the list of pet peeves I'd also add all forms of corporatese including the preference for all forms of "-ilizing," "-ilization," and "izationing" words that have a simplified form.

e.g. "utilization" over "use" or the related variety of "individuals" over "people". The corporatese form of the language tends to obscure in places where sunlight and clarity are needed.

Posted by: JPRS | March 12, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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