Q&A: Brace for impact

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're bracing for impact…

Q: I’m so angry.
A: Why?
Q: I just got this marketing report and it uses the word “impactful”. That’s just a made up word. Corporate babble!
A: Actually, it’s a word.
Q: What? But it’s so, so, meaningless!
A: Yes, but being “meaningful” (a similar word, by the way) has never been a qualifier for being added to the dictionary. Macquarie Dictionary lists “impactful” as an adjective, meaning to “have significant impact”.
Q: But, but… It wasn’t always in the dictionary was it?
A: Well, no. Added in the past 5-10 years. It was being used widely.
Q: Should that be allowed? Just because a word is being used a lot doesn’t make it right!
A: Actually it kind of does. That’s what an evolving language is all about. If the dictionary never added new words, it wouldn’t make sense. Besides, many nouns have been turned into adjectives in this way, including “meaningful” from before, “successful”, and “harmful”. So it was only a matter of time before “impactful” knocked on the door of the party.
Q: At my parties I just leave the door open because the music is up too loud.
A: Thanks for sharing. So even though “impactful” may have been created by middle managers at a strategy team building day, its less than noble origins have no bearing on its legitimacy.
Q: So it’s kind of the Jon Snow of words?
A: If that’s a Game of Thrones reference, you’re lucky it’s ambiguous enough for all the people still wading through season one.
Q: There really should be a word for newly coined words.
A: There is. Neologism. Examples would be the new words we’ve seen created from technology. Think “crowdsourcing” or “selfies”.
Q: Is the word “neologism” a neologism?
A: No, it’s been around since 1772.
Q: Is “Brangelina” a neologism?
A: Was. It was a neologism.
Q: Ooooh. Too soon.
A: Anyway, all this talk of new words and purists comes down to prescriptivism vs descriptivism.
Q: I think my pharmacist does that. Is it something to do with those day of the week tablet containers?
A: Nope. If you are prescriptive in your approach to English, you are telling people what words they should use. (Think Style Guides.) However, most dictionaries these days are of the descriptive camp – describing how English is being used. They are essentially “lightning rods” to what’s going on in the world of language.
Q: I guess those lightning rods would have detected lightning charging cables as a thing.
A: Exactly. Prior to September 2012, if you asked about a lightning connector for your device, no one would have known what you meant. So that’s another type of neologism where an existing word gets a new meaning.
Q: But just because it’s in the dictionary, I don’t have to use “impactful” do I?
A: Of course not. There are many words people avoid using. A lot of people would say that using “impactful” is lazy writing – but others claim it fits a certain descriptive niche. You just need to accept that it isn’t wrong, per se.
Q: What does “per se” mean again?
A: It’s Latin for “in itself” or “by itself”.
Q: Thanks for talking that one through. I’ve calmed down now. I didn’t realise how big an impact it had on me.
A: You might even say that it was…
Q: No. Too soon.


Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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