The Grammarphobia Blog

Impactful wisdom

Q: I read an article recently in the Daily Beast that used “impactful” as an adjective. Is it a real word?

A: Yes, “impactful” is a word, though it’s not a crowd pleaser. We’d prefer one with more impact—“powerful,” “persuasive,” “effective,” and so on.

The adjective is recognized in Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries online as well as Dictionary.com (which has a lengthy usage note on the subject). Webster’s New World doesn’t include “impactful” but it has an entry for “impactive” (“of or having an impact”).

You may be surprised to learn that “impactful” was used as long ago as 1939. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, gives this as its earliest known use:

“The coronation of a pope, the non-stop European crisis—these and kindred events become right-of-way news on radio—more immediate and impactful than even the front page” (from the June 1939 issue of Commentator Magazine).

However, the word was rarely used during the next couple of decades. This is the OED’s second example: “It was resolved that initially the company should concentrate on producing an acceptable, exciting and impactful new house symbol” (from the Times, London, April 3, 1967).

Our searches of newspaper databases suggest that after a trickle of uses in the 1960s, the usage began to take off in the early ’70s.

We spotted examples like “impactful message” and “impactful headline” (both 1971); “impactful systems” (1972); “the way to be impactful” (1974); “impactful factor” (1975); “impactful paper” (a reference to the Bangkok Post, 1976); “our first trip and of course our most impactful” (1977), and a reference to documentaries that are “controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful” (1979).

The OED says “impactful” is derived from the noun “impact” and means “having a significant impact or effect”—which is essentially how standard dictionaries define it. (We’ve written posts about the noun and verb “impact” before, most recently in 2010, so we won’t repeat ourselves.)

Though it’s found in dictionaries, “impactful” is not an elegant word. Even in the lexicon of stuffy bureaucratese, “impactful” stands out. And ironically, it’s deadening, not impactful.

That last newspaper example above (“controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful”) would be much more effective without the final, redundant adjective. “Hardhitting” has more impact.

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