On Lingua Franca Anne Curzan asks ‘What To Do About Impactful’? What indeed? She says, and I agree:
If I were asked to rate new words on a scale from 1-10 based on their aesthetic appeal (note: words’ aesthetic appeal in my opinion—this scale cannot possibly be objective), with 10 being the most appealing and 1 being the least, I would give impactful about a 3. In other words, I notice the word, and I don’t especially like it.
Fair enough, but when she goes on to say:
There is no particularly good reason for my displeasure with this word.
I am not so sure; it has an unusual stress pattern. Other words that take the suffix -ful (the COED lists 115 of them) are monosyllables (playful, useful) or have the stress on the syllable before the suffix (eventful, delightful). As a result, the u is pronounced as a schwa or indeed not at all. Impactful, on the other hand, does not fall into this category because it has the stress on the first syllable, requiring a strong vowel in the last syllable. Further, the consonant cluster is not easy. Frightful and fateful have a t before the f, and tactful has the same ct combination, but they are monosyllabic roots that allow a weak pronunciation of the vowel in the suffix.
So, I think that the word’s perceived unpopularity has an objective basis in pronunciation and is not, at least not entirely, because it is a neologism popular in business jargon.