Former New Zealand Listener editor Paul Little recently gave me “one point off” in the October 2010 issue of North and South magazine for using “impacted” as a verb in my book Shattered Glory. A curious scoring system; the delivery manuscript was 126,008 words long – and this usage appeared once, making it just under 0.0008 percent of the whole. It was accepted as correct by the publishers’ proof-editors. Little didn’t say how many points I’d started with, though if he’s being fair – as opposed to making an undefined dig – I hope he began with one point per word published.
The funny thing is that William Brohaugh’s rather insightful discussions into English make clear that in modern usage ‘impacted’ is perfectly acceptable as a verb.
That’s worth pondering, especially today. English evolves. That’s why we don’t talk like Shakespeare, or for that matter Geoffrey Chaucer or Edmund Spenser. The patterns are generational, and the biggest shifts happen in bursts, often associated with a shift in society or technology. Punctuated equilibrium. It’s particularly obvious if we look at the ‘great vowel shift’ of the fifteenth century that separated Chaucer from Spenser.
That switch was followed, around the time of Henry VIII, by bureaucratic push to bring spelling and usages into some sort of conformity. That itself was a product of the shift from the medieval to the early modern world – less feudalism, but more paperwork and centralised government.
William Tyndale’s bible – on which much of the King James version was based – helped complete the transition. Middle English became, effectively, modern English. It’s possible to read and understand Spenser or Shakespeare today without specialist scholarship – not something we can say of Chaucer.
What has changed are the pronounciations and grammar usages. Take ‘war’, for instance. I’m not going to get into the phonetic character set here. Suffice to say, we pronounce it ‘wor’, unless we’re Winston Churchill. Shakespeare’s actors called it ‘waarrr’. But that’s fairly typical of the way English evolves.
It’s still happening today. I was always taught that the verb ‘ invite’ was not a synonym for its noun form, ‘invitation’, the latter meaning the ‘written or spoken form of the act of inviting’. Technically, this means that ‘You have an invite to lunch’ is bad grammar. It’s used, of course, and has been since the seventeenth century. But lately it’s become good grammar. I’ve seen that usage, lately, even on formal and official letters.
That translation of noun into verb form is symptomatic of change over time – something that’s going on constantly in written and spoken English as it knocks along through that hard school of everyday usage. And it seems to me that the advent of email, twitter and text-speak – or should I say, txtspk – is driving an even sharper change now. One, perhaps, that will be as revolutionary for later twenty-first century English as the ‘great vowel shift’ was in Chaucer’s day. It’s that punctuated equilibrium again. The blogosphere is playing its part too.
It’s being driven, in part, by the speed and ease of communication on the back of technology. And that is also framing, structuring and shaping it. When we’re restricted to 140 or 160 characters, we’re going to find common shorthands and share them. The speed with which that feeds back into common usage is astonishing.
It’s happening. And the grammar nazis need to get used to it.
All of which, I think, rather puts my critic’s undefined mark-down into perspective. I give him 126,007 points off.