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January 26, 2015 / jpschimel

Language Pet Peeves #2: “Impact”

Here’s another word I want to add to my pet peeve list: “Impact.” It’s overused to the point of meaninglessness, and it often has little meaning anyhow.

I blame Thompson-Reuters for this over-use because they developed the “Impact Factor.” This, of course is a way of assessing the average citation levels for journals. As the impact factor has become the dominating metric of the publishing world, so has it emphasized the word “impact” as something to strive for. So, I see many people using “impact” in hopes of increasing their impact factor. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

I know some avowed language purists argue that “impact” should be restricted to a physical blow (its original meaning), but its figurative meaning “”the effective action of one thing or person upon another; the effect of such action; influence; impression” [OED] has been in use since at least the early 1800’s. Used well and carefully, it can be a great word.

No, my issues with “impact” are massive over-use and minimal clarity. When you try to express the impactfullness of your work by describing every effect and influence as an impact, the real impact of all your “impacts” is to deaden readers’ senses and reduce the impact of “impact.” Ok, that’s overkill, but you get the point.

More important though, is that “impact” is a fuzzy verb (Writing Science section 14.2, pg. 137). It sounds specific and concrete, but it isn’t—rather, it says there was an effect, but not what the effect was. That is a problem that goes way beyond mere overuse, which is a crime against linguistic aesthetics and style. Being unclear is failing in communication.

Consider sentences such as the following:

There was a strong impact of added ESX on the growth of Daphnia.”

The rate of GDH activity was impacted by altered salinity.”

Here, “impact” is a synonym for “effect,” and is devoid of content. Did ESX increase or decrease Daphnia growth? If ESX were presented as a potential toxin, I might infer that the effects were bad, since “impact” suggests a strong result, but the word itself doesn’t tell me—thus if fails in its mission. Instead, tell me what happened: “ESX substantially reduced growth” or “GDH activity was increased.”

You can sometimes use words like “influenced” or “altered” as an opening when the patterns of response were complex and you can’t capture the pattern with a single word, for example, “ESX altered the growth of Daphnia, initially increasing growth rate but later reducing it, such that overall yield was reduced.” But “impact” is a poor choice for that role, as it implies simple, direct, substantial action (e.g. an asteroid’s impact crater).

Remember the writer’s rule: “Show, don’t tell.” If you show us that there were interesting and significant influences and patterns in your results, you will convince us. Describing those influences as “impacts” to make them feel important won’t. Rather, it will feel like you’re trying too hard to speak for your results, which makes me suspicious. The role of language in science is to help the data speak for themselves. It’s to bring out and highlight what nature is showing us—not to try to impose a message upon nature.

“Impact” often feels like the author is trying to pump up their results, is heavily overused, and is surprisingly lacking in substance. That’s a trifecta that earns it this week’s place in Josh’s language pet peeves.

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