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April 29, 2018 / jpschimel

Protect “verbidiversity” or why I hate “impact” redux

In biology, we value biodiversity; each species brings something slightly different to the table, and so we worry about homogenizing the biosphere. The same risk is present with language—when we take words that are in the same “genus” (e.g. impact, influence, effect) but are different “species” with some genetic and functional differentiation, and essentially hybridize them, we eliminate distinctions between them and destroy the diversity of the vocabulary. Just as eliminating biodiversity weakens an ecosystem, eliminating “verbidiversity”— the nuances of meaning among similar words—weakens the language, and our ability to communicate powerfully.

In this vein, I’ve been reading a bunch of manuscripts and proposals recently and I am so sick of seeing “impact” used every time an author wanted to discuss how one variable influences another. One sentence really struck me though; that was because it didn’t just feel like the author was over-using “impact,” but was really mis-using it:

“The amount and duration of soil moisture impacts the time that soil microorganisms can be active and grow.”

This is modified from a line in the real document, which is of course, confidential. The use of “impact” in this context just reads wrong to me. The derivation of “impact” is from Latin “Impactus” which derives from “Impingere” according to the OED and other sources. Definitions include: To thrust, to strike or dash against. The act of impinging; the striking of one body against another; collision.

Thus, “impact” carries a sense of an event—something short and sharp. Boom! A physical blow. An “impact crater” occurs when an asteroid hits a planet. “Impact” is a weird word when what you really mean is a long-term influence.

“Impact” does also have a definition that doesn’t include a physical blow, but rather a metaphorical one. The implication is still, however, that the effect is dramatic:
1965    Listener 26 Aug. 297/1   However much you give them, you are not going to make a significant impact on growth, though you may make an impact in the charitable sense. [From the Oxford English Dictionary].

Even in the metaphorical sense, however, most, or at least many, good uses of “impact” still have a flavor of the event being short, even if the effect is long-lasting:
1969    Ld. Mountbatten in  Times 13 Oct. (India Suppl.) p. i/1   He [sc. Gandhi] made such an impact on me that his memory will forever remain fresh in my mind.. [OED]

Or consider:
1966    Economist 10 Dec. 1144/3   What has had an impact on food distributors, apparently, is the opening of an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into supermarket games and stamps. [OED]

In that sentence, it was the opening of the investigation that had the impact, and that opening was a single event. Lets go back, now, to the example that drew my attention:
“The amount and duration of soil moisture impacts the time that soil microorganisms can be active and grow.”

Or consider another sentence modified from another document:
“Mineralization and plant uptake directly impact soil N cycling.”

In these sentences “impact” is nothing but a synonym for “influences” or “affects.” It doesn’t even imply a dramatic or an abrupt effect; it’s just expressing a relationship. So to me, using “impact” this way is a poor choice. Using a word that implies an abrupt or dramatic influence to just say that there is some relationship steals power and nuance from the word “impact.” It damages “verbidiversity” and our ability to express sophisticated thoughts and ideas.

I know I’ve got a bug up my butt about the over-use of “impact” to express every possible relationship, but good writing involves being thoughtful about which words you choose and how you use them. English has an enormous vocabulary, the greatest verbidiversity of any language on Earth, having taken words from Anglo-Saxon, Norman-French, Latin, and others. But even when we have adapted a word and somewhat altered its meaning from its native language, a ghost of the word’s original definition commonly lingers. Be sensitive to those lingering implications, and use your words thoughtfully. Note that “impact” isn’t the only word that suffers from overuse, misuse, or just plain confusing use—its just one that I’m allergic enough to motivate a blog post.

If nothing else, using language thoughtfully means it may be more likely that a reviewer is paying rapt attention to the cool science you are trying to sell, instead of writing a blog post about how your language annoyed him (even if he still thinks the science is cool). That could mean the difference between a $1 Million grant and a polite declination.

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