Impact or Affect?

Earth in a meteor shower (Elements of this image furnished by NASA- earthmap for render from http://visibleearth.nasa.gov)

Several years ago when I wrote a grammar column for The Edmonton Journal, I objected to the use of “impact” as a verb, not because I objected to turning nouns into verbs—it happens quite naturally in English all the time—but because “impact” was being used inappropriately as a synonym for “affect: How will smaller paper clips impact office procedures?  Also, as a verb, “impact” was invariably appearing in documents that contained monstrosities like the verb “incentivize”  meaning simply “motivate.”  So as a verb, “impact” was a buzzword of management gobbledygook written by management gurus who, like certain 20th century French philosophers, were using language, not to communicate, but to make the banal seem profound or to mask a total lack of meaning. Here is a typical passage by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze:

“In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable,’ endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed … In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.” (http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.ca/2009/12/provably-nonsense-part-i.html)

Okay, the management gurus aren’t quite as bad as French philosophers, but most of what they write could be reduced by a third to a half and could be vastly improved by the use of ordinary English.

One has to concede, however, that as a verb, “impact” is certainly useful as a way of conveying the intensity of an effect. What it really means is “to have a strong effect on someone or something.” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has used the verb “impact” quite appropriately:

“I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me, and I worry very much about a society where some people spiritually say, it doesn’t matter to me, I got it, I don’t care about other people.”

For rather more dramatic effects, “impact” is obviously a good alternative to “affect,” which would need an adverb to convey the same sense.  Here are a couple of examples:

Bernie Sanders has pointed out that his rival for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton has received $15 million for her campaign in donations from Wall Street.  Like Sanders, Clinton claims she wants to reform Wall Street and make it work for Main Street, but, given the large donations she has received from Wall Street, it seems legitimate to wonder how that $15 million will impact her policy on Wall Street reform.  And in these times of economic angst in the U.S. over the disturbing reality that the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, how will the perception that Hillary Clinton is beholden to the very forces that have contributed to the disparity in wealth impact the race for the White House?

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