Editor’s Pet Peeve: Affect vs. Impact

August 30, 2011

When I was a newbie reporter at the Houston Chronicle, I once made the mistake of writing about how some city legislation would impact residents.

“Impact means collision,” my editor said as he changed the word in my copy. “Like in a car crash. Laws don’t impact people. Laws affect people.”

That day, his pet peeve became mine. Now I notice “impact” being used improperly all the time. So much that I wonder whether the grammatically incorrect use of “impact” is becoming acceptable.

Here’s the rule: “Impact” can be used as a verb, but not in place of “affect.” It can also be used as a noun, but not in place of “effect.”

Confused? Then follow the wise words of my editor, and only use “impact” when you’re writing about a collision.

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    27 Replies to “Editor’s Pet Peeve: Affect vs. Impact”

    • Andrea says:

      Ha, great post in service of the English language!

      Thanks to journalism, I have so many pet peeves! Like “over” means to physically go over something, whereas in numbers, you should say “more than.”

      And, “less” is for things that can be measured and “fewer” is for things that can be counted. So, you’d want less milk and fewer eggs.

    • My guess is that impact is being used as a “write around” for “affect.” Like Andrea, I hate using over too.

    • Maria says:

      Excellent post. I am very concerned about ‘the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue” as Professor Henry Higgins put it, and the misuse of impact really annoys me.
      And how about “impactful!”

    • Thank you Alexis!! I have always thought that “impact” should only be used for collisions. I’ve seen people write “impact on” or “impact upon”. Um no. 🙂

      From a fellow writer/editor/traveller

    • Kurt Swann says:

      Ha! Nice post! Lots of nouns seem become verbs. People “parent” their children and sometimes try to “guilt” them into changing their behavior. Instead they should try to “dialogue” with them. . .

    • Hmmm…If you look at dictionary.com, one accepted use of “impact” as a verb includes:

      to have an impact or effect on; influence; alter: The decision may impact your whole career. The auto industry will be impacted by the new labor agreements.

      There is a note on the dictionary.com site stating:

      Usage note
      The verb impact has developed the transitive sense “to have an impact or effect on” ( The structured reading program has done more to impact the elementary schools than any other single factor ) and the intransitive sense “to have an impact or effect” ( The work done at the computer center will impact on the economy of Illinois and the nation ). Although recent, the new uses are entirely standard and most likely to occur in formal speech and writing.

      Certainly, one could say “affect” in many cases, but it wouldn’t sound as…um…impactful! I’m not sure you can argue with the dictionary, though – can you? 🙂

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Yes! That’s my point — that people have used “impact” in this way now so much that it’s becoming standard… Looks like Dictionary.com agrees!

        You could say using “impact” is more impactful 🙂 For people like me, it’s more of a red flag. Guess it depends how many editors you expect to have in your audience!

        • It seems to me, once the dictionary allows a word to be used in a particular way, it is no longer a red flag! As in all things, being flexible and recognizing when things change is an important part of keeping up with the times. (Just my 2 cents!)

          Think about it – there was a time when it was unacceptable to say “their” when referring to a single person — “his or her” would be more correct. Now, “their” is common and generally considered okay, I think.

          I like to keep my pet peeves to the absolute incorrect misuse of:
          its, it’s/your, you’re/their, they’re, they’re, etc. Hopefully, those won’t change anytime soon!

          • Andrea says:

            I agree that the Internet has made a lot of things permissible that weren’t before.

            There’s definitely a place for elegant writing versus lazy writing, though. I support misused grammar if it aids understanding or is compelling. But mostly, we misuse words out of laziness. (I’m guilty too!)

            As for using their – a plural pronoun – to refer to a singular entity, that’s still wrong, isn’t it? Plus, there are ways to write around it. My favorite is to just pick a gender and stick with it. (Otherwise you end up in “his or her” land.)

            I like sticking with a gender because the writing is more impactful. ;P

            (Hey!, Google Chrome underlined impactful as a misspelling!)

            Another thing, people use “their” to refer to a corporation. But a corporation is an it.

            Wrong: Google is changing their strategy.
            Correct: Google is changing its strategy.
            Correct: Google managers are changing their strategy.

            • Jennifer says:

              Although now that the Supreme Court has essentially ruled that corporations are people, I suppose we can say that Google is changing their strategy 😉

          • I think “their” instead of his/her is still incorrect even though many people use it as a singular. I’m torn between thinking that the evolution of language and how it is used is a good thing and lamenting the fact that sometimes it seems like once the lowest common denominator of usage becomes widespread, it’s easier to make it “correct” rather than trying to teach people why it is incorrect. Seems a slippery slope to me…

            Singular is singular and plural is plural. How can you even teach grammar if this simple fact no longer holds true?

      • Arielle says:

        Unfortunately, this is inaccurate; “impact” has indeed been accepted in the major dictionaries (Oxford, Collins, Webster) to also mean some deviation of “effect or influence of one person, thing, or action, on another” (Oxford). With that, you yourself are spreading misinformation on the Internet.

        The wonderful thing about languages is their nature, indeed their necessity, to evolve.

    • Ah, a nerdy writer after my own heart, and I mean that as the highest compliment. 🙂 I love discovering that other writers have pet peeves. Mine is split infinitives, which is also one a former boss drilled into me. “To better understand…” is one that is very commonly used. Like nails on a chalkboard every time…

    • Jennifer says:

      YES! My biggest pet peeve ever! I’d even argue that impact should just never be used as a verb. In grad school, my thesis advisor once asked me: “When is impact used as a verb?” “Uh, when it’s being used incorrectly?” I stammered. And I’ve never used it as a verb since.

    • Rich Voysey says:

      I totally agree! The fact is, ‘impact’ is used so often and inappropriately these days – I’ve heard it as many as three times in one long rambling sentence by a TV business/finance pundit – that it’s beginning to lose its … er …. impact! 😉

    • SayWhatYouMean says:

      As far as I can tell you are the only editor in the world who appreciates this truth.
      As a nurse I laugh when I hear about people being ‘impacted’ by an event. The only time people are impacted is when they are constipated.
      Similarly, when you hear about ‘people being evacuated’ in an emergency would mean they were all given enemas. Rather it should be said that ‘the town was evacuated’.

    • I’m a professional editor and never leave _impact_ in a text I’m editing unless it means–duh!–impact. My theory is that this misusage got started by business airheads who weren’t sure when to use _affect_ and when to use _effect_. With _impact_, they don’t have to worry about the distinction, plus they get that nice hyperbolic effect that is so highly valued among PR and marketing folk. It probably goes over better in board meetings, too.

    • Fredric Kleinberg says:

      While you are at it can you get to another? Loan vs lend have always annoyed me since one I take to be a perfectly adequate verb and the other a simple noun. We really don’t need to borrow the noun to describe the active process, no more than to use the verb to replace its own object.

    • Vern says:

      Of course one can argue with the dictionary, since there are many dictionaries, and all of them are evolving. The question is whether definitions should be descriptive or prescriptive.

      To my ears, anyone using “impact” where “affect” or “effect” would have sufficed simply sounds like someone infected with business or politico Newspeak, that is, a complete phony.

    • Tedd says:

      Yes, the war is lost. It’s over. The entire world uses “impact/impacted” shamelessly. It is unstoppable and that’s utterly depressing.

    • Caz says:

      Impact is a noun. There is perfectly good verb ( affect) and lots of adjectives to use without mangling the language. Ah! That’s it. Misuse of nouns can cause the formation of “manglage”

    • sally says:

      The reason to resist changes in meaning is to preserve specificity of language. Impact had a different, special meaning that is lost as it become a synonym of effect. “Effect” can refer to a small outcome; saying “impact” instead seems to be an attempt to make every change big and important, even if they are not.

      One of the responders hit my cringe button by using “hopefully” in place of something specific that was probably “I hope” or I am hopeful”. I hate that usage.

    • John Lambert says:

      How about the great North American confusion over to lay and to lie?

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