Verbal Energy

A curmudgeon’s guide to new usages

A traditionalist offers a framing question: Does this new usage solve a new problem?

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    Merriam-Webster's 2014 word of the year, 'culture,' is shown in one of their dictionaries at the dictionary publisher's offices in Springfield, Mass.
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One has to marvel at all the resources available under the rubric of “dictionary” nowadays. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when it was plausible to speak of “the dictionary” – meaning Dr. Johnson’s, on one side of the great pond, or Noah Webster’s, on the other. 

An item that caught my eye the other day, at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, was the Real Grammar Quiz. Writer Michael Rundell explains that “Real Grammar” isn’t “about the made-up or outdated ‘rules’ which some people try to make us follow,” but rather “is based on the evidence of language in use.”

He was writing on the question of impact as a verb. I know this usage goes back to 1600, but it’s still not my favorite. (The Monitor’s copy desk doesn’t like it much either.) Mr. Rundell provides a principled analysis, though, for why it’s acceptable and concludes, “Our advice is to ignore irrational voices telling you that it’s wrong to use impact as a verb.”

Let me offer here a framing question I try to keep in mind when considering style decisions: Does this new usage solve a new problem? 

In other words, don’t we already have a word for that? 

In the case of a new invention, a new thing of some sort, we obviously need a new word. So the coinage of new nouns tends to be relatively simple. Other new usages, not so much.

Contact used as a verb set traditionalists’ teeth on edge a generation ago. It has since been recognized as a useful umbrella term meaning “to initiate communication” in an era of multiple channels: e-mail, phone, text message, and (still!) postal mail. It’s a new usage that solves a new problem.

But affect arguably can do the work of impact as a transitive verb (“This impacts that”). And impinge on or impinge upon can do the work of impact as an intransitive verb, as in “This impacts on that.” This intransitive sense, by the way, can get usage experts particularly riled up: Rundell notes that 85 percent of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel in 2001 rejected “impact on.”  

Sometimes the issue isn’t a new usage but the people who are using it. That may be part of the beef with “impact on.” We may like to think our language is shaped by phrases from carefully crafted presidential utterances and the best lines from our playwrights and poets. 

But it may be that salesmen, mid-level bureaucrats, and well, teenage girls have more impact than we think. (I can say “impact” there, can’t I?)

Yes, language changes, and no, we can’t keep it from doing so. But there are advantages to stability and uniformity. 

Just as a car needs both an accelerator and brakes, language benefits from both innovation and stabilizing forces such as standard rules for spelling, grammar, and usage. 

In the few pixels I control on the vast screen of the human experience, I’m going to keep my infinitives unsplit and will continue to distinguish between who and whom. 

And, although a generation hence, I may have another idea, for now, I’ll generally avoid impact as a verb.

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