When I wake up early and can’t get back to sleep, I often put the radio on. Sometimes a local radio but more often than not, in these days of digital everything, the BBC’s Radio 4. The other day I was listening to an interview with an expert on the terrorist group ISIS. Trying to get across the message that there are more ways of being effective terrorists than bombs, the interviewee explained how a good propaganda machine can do the job better. “Propaganda can be more impactful than an atomic bomb,” he claimed.
The radio programme in question is run by John Humphries, who is a stickler for good English. I waited for the ‘disapproval bomb’ to explode. Or for a filthy silence. But neither. The interview went ahead as if nothing dreadful had happened. At last, I thought. At last even John Humphries has accepted that we make mistakes, although more than a mistake, it seemed to me that this was just a piece of creative English. ‘Impact’. ‘Impactful’. Works quite well.
Of course, in class we’d choose the right moment to correct the learner. Which, as I said earlier John Humphries made no attempt to do. But then again, the speaker was Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, and a PhD student at King’s College London.
And therein lies the rub. If it’s OK for native speakers to go around making up words as the situation demands, why can’t non-native speakers? If a language belongs to its speakers, as you’re told by sociolinguists, then these speakers, native or non-native, have the right to be creative with the language so as to achieve communicative effectiveness, especially with spoken language, which places so much pressure on speakers, as we know.
‘Impactful’! I like it. It has a certain impact, don’t you think?