Q&A: Impression vs impersonation

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 making quite an impression…

Q: Hi AWC, do you want to hear my impression of a mute sports commentator?

A: Yep sure.

Q: ….

A: Um.

Q: Not bad right? Oh, and I’ve been working on my mute astronaut too.

A: No that’s fine, maybe later. Do you have a question for us?

Q: ….

A: A question?

Q: Haha, sorry, was just sneaking in my impression of a mute opera singer. Now, yes, I do have a related question please. What is the difference between an “impression” and an “impersonation”?

A: Okay, that’s a pretty good question.

Q: Yes it is. Or as a mute piano teacher would say, ….

A: Your mute impressions are becoming moot impressions. Please stop.

Q: Only if you tell me the difference.

A: Fair enough. A lot of people use the two words interchangeably, but there appears to be a generally accepted difference. If we think about the word “impression”, we already have a clue in its tangible meaning. For example, a prisoner might make a physical impression of a key in a bar of soap.

Q: Is this before or after they drop the soap?

A: No comment. So an impression by a comedian or an entertainer looks to take an aspect or aspects of something and copy it. Macquarie Dictionary has it synonymous with “imitation”. It’s often just the voice, but could be actions too. For example, someone doing a Donald Duck impression.

Q: So an impressionist simply imitates a voice or actions?

A: Yes. Meanwhile, to impersonate is defined by Macquarie Dictionary as “to assume the character or appearance of, or pretend to be.” Impersonators actually embody everything about a person – including how they dress. For example, all of the Elvis impersonators that descend on the NSW town of Parkes each January.

Q: My Uncle Shane is an Elvis impersonator.

A: Oh, that’s interesting. Does he go to festivals or sing at clubs?

Q: No way, he never leaves the house. He’s impersonating the Elvis that went into hiding in 1977 after the faked death.

A: Right okay. Anyway, while impressions are usually harmless, an “impersonator” is not always an entertainer – it can also be defined as someone embodying a person for more sinister, fraudulent reasons.

Q: Do you have an example?

A: Sure do. An impression of a police officer might simply be to rock back and forth on your feet and say “ullo ullo ullo, what’s going on here?” or eat a bunch of doughnuts. However, if you’re impersonating a police officer, you are dressing in the uniform and – unless it’s a “P” Party – you may be in trouble for “impersonating a police officer”.

Q: My Uncle Shane went to a “P” Party once. Completely misunderstood the invite. That’s why he can’t leave the house anymore…

A: Oh dear.

Q: So, what about impersonating a police officer over the phone? I could be in my pyjamas. Is it still called that?

A: You’d still use the term “impersonating” in that sense due to its link to a similar crime.

Q: Is “impersonation” just for copying persons?

A: Yes, generally, and that’s another big difference. So a bird might mimic or imitate a car alarm, but it wouldn’t impersonate it. (You’d probably also steer clear of saying it did “an impression” of a car alarm – as this implies some kind of conscious preparation.) Likewise a person wouldn’t do an impersonation of a frog – rather, they’d do an impression of one, mimic or imitate it.

Q: Thanks for the lesson. Can I do one final impression?

A: Sure.

Q: ….

A: A mute tax accountant?

Q: No silly. It was a completely healthy mime artist!

If 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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