Impactful, Impact-Empty

Lydia Davis, short-story writer

Lydia Davis: Unlikely to stand up for “impactful.”

I’m one of those readers and teachers who find impactful really ugly, and that’s not an argument I can win. It’s not even an argument.

The last — or at least the most recent — straw was a social-media post from Penguin Random House announcing a new book aimed at writers of short stories.  The message included this sentence:

“Signature’s exclusive Short Story Writing Guide features advice from favorite authors on how to craft slim, impactful writing.”

I tried to imagine Alice Munro or Lydia Davis standing up for “slim, impactful writing.”

In 2017, slim is a strange enough word (British English calls dieting slimming, while maybe the most common American use of slim is to describe one’s chances).

When writing and slimness are brought together, it’s usually to speak disparagingly of a book’s length and, by extension, its value. (“Roger’s slim volume on weathercocks in Northumberland failed to garner the attention he craved.”)  

Slim doesn’t show up much in my students’ lexicon, but impactful seems to be everywhere.

My Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan wrote judiciously about the word impactful in 2013, and that piece grounded a much longer discussion on Language Log, which engaged some of the linguistic features of the word’s usage.

Language Log called my attention to the judgment, recorded in Modern American Usage, that meaningful can mean something is characterized by having meaning rather than being full of meaning.

On the other hand, as Anne pointed out, joyful is one of many words where the distinction between “characterized by” and “filled with” is hazy. (Is a joyful noise characterized by joy, or is it filled with it?)

Reading student work, much less the work of serious professionals in and around higher ed, I experience no joy when I encounter impactful.

Our commerce-driven media have absorbed impactful as a term meaning “having a powerful effect.” I think it’s used where a generation or two ago someone might have written significant or simply important, without worrying too much about what was being signified or the import of the thing being described.

The phrase “on impact” is technological and perhaps specifically vehicular. Those air bags designed to inflate on impact can themselves be impactful, sometimes fatally so. A Google Ngram suggests that the word impact might be loosely tracked with the rise of motor cars at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 1998 film Deep Impact, a large flaming orange thing is about to destroy planet earth. Scientists are dispatched to intercept it. (Spoiler alert: the earth survives. At least for now.)

Deep-impact massage kneads down, down, down, eliding the distinction between forceful contact and effective consequence.

An impacted wisdom tooth is a miserable experience. Philosophers take note: We lack a concept of impacted wisdom. I leave it to you to decide what it might be.

As to writers, I’m back with the guide to short-story writing, and the goal of having a powerful, significant, meaningful piece of prose for the reader.

There are many ways — in a student paper, an ad, or a short story — to be brief and effective. At the moment, though, I’m envisioning that parable of narratival concision, a  six-word “story” sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway (and recently debunked by my colleague Ben Yagoda). I’ve updated the “story,” just a little.

For sale: slim, impactful baby shoes, never worn.

On second thought, it might still need an edit.


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