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J A N U A R Y  1 9 9 8

A Greece to Be Discovered

by Barbara Wallraff

AN article in The Wall Street Journal the other day said, "Top officials of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. engaged in a 'systemic' effort to defraud government health-care programs, federal investigators state in an affidavit unsealed yesterday in Florida." Has my medical-school training led me astray? Can systemic possibly be the right word here? Systematic?

James Wallman, M.D.
Redlands, Calif.

You can find meanings "Systemic"like "of or relating to a system" for both words in most dictionaries -- a technicality in those federal investigators' favor. Nonetheless, as you know, systemic tends to mean "within or throughout a biological system" (such as the nervous or circulatory system or an entire organism), whereas for the most part systematic means "according to a method or plan." Unless something very peculiar is going on in this legal case, systemic does seem out of kilter here.


Today I received an E-mail message from a professor at an Ivy League university which included the following: "This impacts on when it began to influence political ideas.... The question of when it began to impacton political thought can be studied through the three other texts that it clearly did influence.... "

I object to the use of impact as a verb to mean affect, and the redundant "on" strikes me as a sign that the writer recognizes, perhaps despite himself, that impact isn't the right word for the job here. I never use impact in this way, and I tell my students not to. But language changes, and this usage seems to have won acceptance among many college professors and journalists. I'm beginning to wonder whether we anti-impacters have already lost the battle and impact as a verb is here to stay.

Do you think we should keep resisting impact vs. anti-impactthe impact of impact? Or is this verb now a legitimate choice even in contexts that haven't anything to do with physical objects crashing into each other?

C. J. Fraser
Hong Kong, China

Resist, resist! Eighty-four percent of the usage panel of the current, third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary "disapproves of the construction to impact on ... and fully 95 percent disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb" meaning affect, according to a note in the dictionary. It continues, "But even these figures do not reflect the degree of distaste with which critics view the usage.... " In the oldest extant use of the verb, it means something like pack or wedge, but it may also properly appear, as you note, in contexts relating to physical collisions ("Meteorites often impact the moon").


I have been in a continuous argument about this with every single person I know (except my mother) for about a month and a half now. What is the plural of beer? I have always thought the plural was beer, not beers. Please respond, so that (hopefully) I can rub it in everyone's face that I am correct. Thank you VERY much.

Molly Huddleston
Portland, Oreg.

Do you mean the plural as in "He liked to have a couple of beers when he got home from work"? Or as in "Colorado is known for its beer" -- which isn't actually a plural? Or as in "Colorado is known for its deer" -- which, of course, is a different word? I'm sorry to have to break it to you, but the plural of beer is beers.

There are in fact nouns with a plural the same "beers"as the singular. These tend to name creatures that have been known to English since ancient times and have been hunted or fished or were used for food, such as deer and bear and fowl. In most cases a form with an s on the end is also a proper plural, and this plural is likelier to refer to a limited number of individuals than to a multitude ("We feasted on two roast fowls in a room overlooking a pond full of waterfowl and trout"). But this distinction -- which is not a rule, only a tendency, and one to which many exceptions exist -- doesn't generally apply to liquids, since liquid en masse is a quantity of liquid, not a number of liquids, and is therefore singular ("Maybe we shouldn't have washed the meal down with so much beer"). Only when one is talking about individual glasses or bottles or brands ("So many beers to choose from!") does the word become plural.

Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@TheAtlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthlymagazine.

Illustrations by Edward Briant

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; Word Court; Volume 281, No. 1; page 108.

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