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Real Grammar Quiz, Question 5: Is it OK to use impact as a verb?

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan DictionaryReal Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.

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In our quiz and video series, we’ve been discussing evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. In the fifth question in our Real Grammar quiz, we asked whether the noun impact could also function as a verb, in sentences such as:

The bad weather will impact on our profits.
or
The bad weather will impact our profits.

Some of you may be surprised that this is even worth discussing, since this verbal use of impact is so common and well-established. But not everyone agrees. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) includes reports from its “usage panel”, a group made up of “200 prominent scholars, creative writers, journalists, diplomats, and others in occupations requiring mastery of language”. And these “experts” are overwhelmingly hostile to this use of impact:

In our 2001 survey, 85 percent of the Panel rejected the intransitive use in the sentence These policies are impacting on our ability to achieve success, and 80 percent rejected the transitive use in the sentence The court ruling will impact the education of minority students.

Grammar Girl is a little more ambivalent, and accepts that impact as a verb is in common use. But she describes this as a “jargony usage”, and advises us to use affect instead, concluding that

If you can put an article in front of “impact,” you are using it in the most proper way — as a noun.

Others are even more damning. One site dispensing grammar advice says

You may not use this noun as a verb. It sounds horribly clumsy and many people find its use as a verb aesthetically offensive.

This advice is preceded by the ridiculous injunction “Don’t use nouns as verbs” – which would put a large percentage of familiar English vocabulary off limits. The issue here is not one specific item of vocabulary (impact), but a general feature of English grammar – and one which seems to cause unnecessary confusion. Several earlier posts on our blog have discussed what is sometimes called “conversion”, the way some  words can acquire new meanings by changing their word class. Gill Francis has talked about “nouning” (where a verb is used as a noun), while Jonathan Marks explains the more common process of “verbing” (turning nouns into verbs), which is what we’re dealing with here. As Jonathan shows, this has been an essential characteristic of English for over a thousand years, and is “an economical way of extending the functionality of the language without needing to create new words”.

It is not clear why some people get so upset about these conversions, but of all the peeves beloved of prescriptivists, this must be one of the most misguided. Simon Heffer, British journalist and self-confessed pedant, states categorically that

ACCESS is a noun and not a verb. “Can I access your website?” is wrong.

– which will come as a surprise to the millions of English speakers who use expressions like this on a regular basis. In his book Strictly English, Heffer similarly condemns the verbal use of task – yet he has no problem with converting the noun text into a verb. Why?

There is no logic to any of this. Time to go back to the American Heritage’s usage panel, this time to its views on the word contact. Younger readers will be amazed to discover that, a generation ago, prescriptivists were scandalized by the way some people used the noun contact as a verb. In 1969, only 34% of the AHD panel thought this was acceptable. But by 2004, this figure had gone up to 94%, and it is hard to believe anyone in 2015 could seriously object to this very common usage. (For the record, our 1.6-billion-word corpus has 341,000 instances of contact as a noun, and 277,00 as a verb, so both are three-star headwords in the Macmillan Dictionary.) As the AHD says, “The usefulness and popularity of this verb has worn down resistance to it”. We can be confident that the same thing will happen with impact. Our advice is to ignore irrational voices telling you that it’s wrong to use impact as a verb.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the sixth video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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About the author

Michael Rundell

3 Comments

  • The language of the prescriptivists is very telling. ‘You may not use this noun as a verb.’ Really? May not? The only appropriate response to such a fusty and impertinent prohibition is: Says who?

  • Thanks for this article. It is a good reminder that “rules” change. What struck me is that you used the word “impact”. Once when I was with a student, I corrected his use of “impact” as a verb. I’m more used to impact as a noun. I always go to Macmillan dictionary and so when I saw that there was an entry, I had to make something up! Now, I can point to this article to show that in a sense my hunch was correct – it’s awkward in the eyes of many people to use “impact” as a verb! But I guess, I also have to accept that use.

  • I imagine that Simon Heffer accepted the verbal use of “text” because it applies to a new activity, for which it is useful to have a specific word.

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