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A tale of two suffixes

Q: I have a question about how suffixes are chosen. Specifically, why did the noun/verb “impact” turn into an adjective by adding “-ful” instead of “-ive”?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear that both “impactive” and “impactful” can be found in standard dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines “impactive” as “having an impact or marked effect,” and “impactful” as “having a forceful impact: producing a marked impression.” It treats both as standard English.

M-W has this “impactive” example (which we’ve expanded) from F. Scott Fitgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is the Night: “Feeling the impactive scrutiny of strange faces, she took off her bath-robe and followed.”

And here’s the dictionary’s “impactful” example: “Fashion loves a big expansive gesture, but a small one can be pretty impactful, too” (from an article by Mark Holgate in Vogue, Oct. 30, 2017).

The two adjectives were originally formed by adding the suffixes “-ive” and “-ful” to the noun “impact,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun is believed to come from the Latin impactus, the participial stem of impingere (to impinge). The OED adds an asterisk to impactus, indicating that it’s “a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred.”

As it turns out, “impactive” showed up nearly a century before “impactful” appeared in the late 1930s, but the younger term is by far the more popular now, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books.

The earliest example we’ve found for “impactive” is from The League’s Convert, an 1847 play by Henry W. Pearson about a king’s daughter who falls in love with a populist leader.

In this passage, she appeals to her lover to make peace with her father: “With philanthropic eye, review our race / As an impactive body, whereof they, / The members, serving the prime good of all.”

However that early literary example seems to be an outlier. The other 19th-century examples we’ve found are in technical works that describe the force of something, such as weight or wind or waves, on various structures.

For instance, the Scottish structural engineer William Fairbairn writes that the weight and speed of trains are “severe tests of impactive force on every structure, whether beams or bridges” (On the Application of Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes, 1854).

As for “impactful,” the earliest example cited by the OED is from The Commentator magazine (June 29, 1939): “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.”

That example also appears in a 2019 post of ours about “impactful,” a word criticized by some language commentators. Although it’s standard English, we think many other words have more impact—“powerful,” “persuasive,” “forceful,” and so on.

As for the suffixes, let’s begin with “-ive,” which the OED says is derived from –ivus, a Latin suffix that formed adjectives when added to the participial stem of verbs (act-ivus, active) or nouns (tempest-ivus, seasonable).

The dictionary says the suffix is generally used in English to form words based on Latin terms with -ivus suffixes or to “form words on Latin analogies, with the sense ‘having a tendency to, having the nature, character, or quality of, given to (some action).’ ”

As for the English suffix “-ful,” Oxford says it’s used to form “adjectives with the sense ‘full of, or (more generally) having or characterized by (what is expressed by the first element)’. Also combined with verbs with the sense ‘liable or tending to —.’ ”

The OED adds that the suffix is derived from the Old English adjective full (“containing or holding as much or as many as possible; having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; filled to capacity”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the Old English adjective ultimately comes from the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic root fulla (full) and the Proto-Indo-European pelə- (to fill).

The OED notes that “in Old English the adjective full, like its cognates in the other Germanic languages, was frequently used as a suffix in combination with a preceding noun.”

In modern English, “-ful” usually combines with nouns derived from Old English or other Germanic languages (“harmful,” “tearful,” “frightful,” “playful,” “skillful”). But it’s also seen with nouns from Romance languages or Latin (“beautiful,” “colorful,” “fateful,” “graceful,” “masterful,” “tactful”).

Why have both “-ful” and “-ive” joined with “impact” to give us the adjectives “impactful” and “impactive”? And why does the more popular, “impactful,” link a prefix derived from Old English to a noun believed to come from Latin?

Why not? English is a Germanic language with many borrowings from non-Germanic languages, especially Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French. We’ve written several times about this, including a 2018 post, When English met Latin.

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