Like my Twitter colleague André Racicot, I thought it would be a great idea to comment on French words often used incorrectly or Gallicisms that constantly ooze into English texts. Today, I’d like to talk to you about a word that rubs my French-speaking colleagues the wrong way: impact.

Below is a text excerpt written by a journalist (bold print is mine):

« Le directeur parlementaire du budget a en effet revu à la baisse le taux de croissance économique et le prix du baril de pétrole en juillet, ce qui pourrait avoir un impact majeur sur les revenus du gouvernement. »*

Is impact used correctly in the above sentence? Let’s find out.

According to Le Petit Robert, to name but one of many French-language gems, impact is defined as « Collision, heurt. Sous l’impact d’un projectile. » The next definition reads: « Effet d’une action forte, brutale. L’impact de la nouvelle a été terrible. » The last entry is debatable: « Effet, influence (emploi critiqué). L’impact de la recherche sur le développement économique. Impact psychologique. Avoir de l’impact, un impact. »

Given the context provided in the above sentence (drop in economic growth rate and oil barrel prices), it is safe to say that impact is not used correctly, for it is a direct borrowing from English. Besides, does a drop in growth and prices cause a collision? Some terms to consider are effet and influence. After all, we can certainly assume—if not conclude—that a drop in economic growth rates and oil barrel prices influenced government income. If I were the writer of the above text, I would not hesitate to write influence, a word that fits well in this context. French copywriters could also come up with other creative words (context is everything, of course). One of my francophone Twitter followers once suggested portée marquante as a nice alternative.

On the flip side, impact is an all-purpose word in English. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines impact as “the action of one body coming forcibly into contact with another,” and “an effect or influence, especially when strong.” The Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus adds this: “the impression made by an idea, social group, etc.” As we can see, English is more flexible about using impact in any imaginable context, whereas French is more strict.

Whenever you translate or do a concordance reading, look out for the French impact. Ask yourself if the author is referring to a collision or an influence. The word is used correctly if the former takes precedence. If the latter prevails, however (and it’s often the case), chances are impact is incorrect. It would do our French copywriters some good to use a dictionary—and why not a thesaurus!

*To protect the innocent, the source excerpt and journalist’s name have remained anonymous. 


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