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Today I wrote the phrase "free from any procedural impediments" and am wondering how the meaning would change if I instead wrote "free from any procedural impairments."

What is the difference between:

  • impairment vs. impediment (noun form)
  • impede vs. impair (verb form)
  • impeded vs. impaired (past participle?)

I found this Quora question on the matter which seems to suggest "impairment" is more abstract, while "impediment" is more physical.

Is this similar to the distinction between "further" and "farther," where the former refers to abstract notions such as time, and the latter to physical distances?

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    If you impair something, you do something to it that makes it intrinsically less effective. It will retain that reduced capacity. If you impede something, you just work against it, it remains as capable as ever, but is less effective do to you efforts. Traffic jams impede driving, Alcohol impairs it. – Phil Sweet May 16 '16 at 17:54
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    An impediment is an external obstacle blocking the way (either metaphorically, or literally). An impairment is an lack of expected or required functionality. – herisson May 16 '16 at 17:55
  • What does the dictionary tell you? – WS2 May 16 '16 at 18:02
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The comments from Phil Sweet and sumelic match my intuitive sense of the words and the definitions in my dictionary (Summary: impair = to weaken; impede = to obstruct).

It's a clean distinction in theory. A car that is blocked by a boulder in the road is clearly impeded and not impaired. But in practice, I think it can be muddy, esp. as you get more metaphorical. If I have Parkinson's disease and can't go up stairs, that could be seen as a weakness, but the disease itself can also be seen as an obstacle. If I have to fight with one hand tied behind my back, am I impaired or impeded? I would say both. I think a "weakness" can be seen as a sub-type of "obstacle," so you may need to choose one word or the other based on whether you wish to emphasize the weakness of the person trying to do something, or the strength of the thing in her way.

The example is interesting, though. It seems metaphorical, and I can see either sense: A procedure (law, rule, etc) may "weaken" me by not allowing me to use certain capabilities. Or the procedure itself may be seen as an obstacle standing in my way.

This is very subjunctive, but I think "procedural impediments" is less likely to be misunderstood. "Procedural impairments" may be taken to mean bad wording that make the procedure itself less effective; e.g., loopholes.

Either way, to answer the question, I don't see the difference as related to the abstract/concrete distinction.

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