The Grammarphobia Blog

Impact zone

Q: It’s probably technically correct to say “make an impact,” but it sounds more childish to me than saying “have an impact.”  Any thoughts?

A: A check of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that both “make an impact” and “have an impact” are used, but the “make” versions far outnumber the “haves.” To tell you the truth, we don’t see much difference between them.

Here are examples of each, from British newspapers and magazines:

1958, “it is the lighting which makes the great impact”;

1965, “you are not going to make a significant impact on growth, though you may make an impact in the charitable sense”;

1966, “What has had an impact on food distributors”;

1969, “He made such an impact on me that his memory will forever remain fresh in my mind.”

These citations appear under the OED’s entry for the noun “impact” in its usual modern meaning, a sense of the word that dates back to 1817:

“Now commonly the effective action of one thing or person upon another; the effect of such action; influence; impression. Esp. in phr. to make an impact (on).”

Many people complain about the verb “impact,” a usage that grew out of this 19th-century sense of the noun. In case you’re interested, we recently wrote a blog entry about the “verbing” of nouns like “impact.”

The original verb “impact,” the OED says, actually goes back more than 400 years. It was modeled after the past participle “impacted,” meaning packed in (as in “an impacted wisdom tooth”).

But two more recent senses of the verb came along only in the 20th century, and these verbs were modeled after uses of the noun that showed up in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1916, according to OED citations, writers first used the verb to mean “to come forcibly into contact with a (larger) body or surface,” as when an asteroid “impacts” on or against a planet.

And in 1935, the OED citations show, people began using the verb in the figurative sense of “to have a (pronounced) effect on.

We don’t care for this figurative usage, but we suspect that it’s here to stay.

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