A formula for real impact

Ned Lamont's defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary Aug. 8 may be all over but the shouting.

But the reverberations have reached the Monitor's in-box. The headline on our story on the vote read, "Ned Lamont's victory impacts both parties in the run-up to November and even into 2008."

This prompted a reader to write, "IMPACT IS NOT A VERB!" and call this usage a "horrible butchery of the English language."

"So, is he right?" a colleague asked as he passed the message along to me.

Well, yes and no. This kind of absolutist language is often cover for something like "Sister Margaret/Mr. Asbill/Mrs. Kleinfehler told us in eighth grade/11th grade/senior year never to use 'impact' as a verb."

The American Heritage Dictionary observes, "The use of impact as a verb meaning 'to have an effect' often has a big impact on readers," and notes that strong majorities of its in-house usage panel disapprove of "impact" or "impact on" as verb constructions.

The AHD goes on to defend this usage as well established. But the chief style guru at one of the country's premier newspapers has a rule that any usage that prompts this kind of discussion is to be avoided. Period.

"Affect" is the verb that's correct here. It's from Latin, rooted in the none-too-exciting idea doing something to something else.

But I understand why people like "impact." It packs a punch, just by the way it sounds, with its flat "a" and crunched-together final consonants.

Language changes over time. Verbs have become nouns, and nouns, verbs. I was pondering this a couple of weeks ago when suddenly it hit me: Maybe this isn't about dictionaries and logic.

Maybe this is an anthropological issue – best understood with some sort of scientific formula. You know, like what you see in the movies when the undiscovered genius stands before the blackboard for a few moments and then suddenly picks up the chalk and starts scribbling furiously, until voilà! a major scientific problem is solved.

Let y be the year one started school.

Let p be the average age of one's parents at one's birth. In a family of older parents, more "adult" conversation prevails even when the children are small.

Let t be temperament: Some people are conservative; others are fashion-forward, in clothes as in language.

Let a be attitude toward authority: Are Sister Margaret's rules – or Mr. Asbill's – a comforting ordering of the universe? Or some manifestation of global oppression?

Let s be sensitivity to language. Some people just don't get the rules, period. And those who do are often split between those who do so intellectually (and sometimes follow the rules out the window) and those who "play by ear."

Let C be the cosmopolitan factor: Did your family move around as you were growing up? Did you have next-door neighbors from India, for instance, or a piano teacher from Scotland?

Let l be the literary factor: How widely read are you, and across what time frame? If you've read 19th-century novels, you won't blink at a word like "unwonted," and you'll know what a "fortnight" is.

Let B be the budget of the school system you went through, and let f be the educational fad prevailing when you were there. ("Let's just let the kids express themselves!" "No, gotta have grammar!")

So we end up with this:

Is that perfectly clear? Now if I could only calculate the values for the variables.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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