Effect and Affect

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I have a theory that is growing stronger ever time I try and fail to correctly type the words initiative or entrepreneur. My theory is that misspellings of words and misuses of grammar exist within each of us much like chronic health conditions. They are either developed from birth defects or in early childhood, or maybe we even inherit them from past lives, like karmic grammar retribution. But it seems like we all have at least one or two little glitches in our writing or speaking abilities that are chronic and incurable.

Okay, some of us are more afflicted than others, and some afflictions are far more common than others. There seems to be an outbreak of your instead of you’re going around on Facebook. And to instead of too seems to run in my family. Nasty bouts of irregardless are making their way through many law schools. But of all the grammar and spelling afflictions out there, none is more widespread an epidemic as affect vs. effect.

Don’t believe me? Well, the fact that you’re reading this means you probably do, but just so you know you’re not alone—according to the Oxford Dictionaries, affect is routinely one of the most commonly searched-for words every month. According to Mignon Fogarty—also known as blogger, author and podcaster Grammar Girl—affect vs. effect is by far the most common grammar topic she’s asked about. People get this wrong constantly.

Why so much trouble with this simple pair of words? I have yet another theory. See, the rules of grammar are complicated enough, but it’s really the exceptions to the rules that screw people up. It’s easy to say “I before E, except after C,” but once you see fancier, leisure, seize, eight, freight, neighbor, sleigh…you get the idea, you start to question everything you’ve ever known.

So like everything, there is a simple rule for affect vs. effect, and there are some exceptions. The exceptions make everyone question the rule. But in this case, the rule is correct so freaking often that it’s safe to use nearly all of the time. So are you ready? Here it is:

Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun.

There. Done. Now you know how to use affect and effect. Many will say, “whoa, whoa, whoa those two words have many different meanings, and depending on the context that rule is totally wrong, you need to fully understand the essence and root of each word to master the usage.” But seriously, 95% of the time these words are used—affect is a verb and effect is a noun. If you find yourself in one of the weird scenarios where that’s wrong, just rephrase it so you can use a different word, nobody will care.

Now, this assumes you know what noun and a verb mean, but just in case, here’s how to think of each word.

Affect – Affect typically means to influence, so something affects something else. Tequila can affect your judgment. That poorly written Facebook post can affect your mood. There is another less common use of the word as a verb, which is to pretend or put on a false appearance, as in “She was terrified on the inside, but affected a sense of calm.” Still a verb, an action.

Effect – Effect usually means a result of some kind, as in, The effects of tequila can be unfortunate. A glass of wine, however, can have a calming effect. There are a few more specific uses of this form of the word, but they are usually along the same lines. Think side effects, or special effects. Most of these uses will indicate the outcome of some action, not the action itself. One weird one is the phrase personal effects, meaning one’s belongings. But still. Noun, noun, noun.

Now let’s just say that, in the course of that important Tweet, you don’t have time to Google this again, or you forgot to bookmark this page (for shame!). Grammar Girl has a nice little tool to remember this rule.

Just remember: The arrow affected the aardvark.

Then imagine a cute little aardvark being shot with an arrow and jumping up in the air in shock. If you’re an animal lover, imagine it was a nonfatal wound, maybe a toy arrow or one of those suction cup arrows. Or Cupid, there you go, imagine Cupid shot an aardvark and made him fall in love. The arrow affected the aardvark.

All done. Okay, just to not leave readers in too much suspense, here are those exceptions:

1. The word effect is sometimes used as a verb. This is the one that confuses most people, I imagine. When combined with an object, effect can mean, “to cause” something to happen, or “bring about.” The most common example of this use of the word is that one can effect change. Consider: Voters hope the new president can effect positive change in Washington politics.

I’m just going to go out on a limb here, though, and say that this use is kind of lame. More common usage like bring about, cause or create gets the job done just as well and doesn’t sound like a Poli Sci 101 term paper.

2. The word affect can be used as a noun. This definition of the word is almost exclusively used in academic settings, particularly in psychology or psychiatry. It means a mood or a mental state that someone appears to have. The psychiatrist saw the big smile on the subject’s face and noted a happy affect.

Psychiatrists and social scientists generally know what they’re doing with this use of the word, and for everyone else, it’s just not really an issue.

So now that you know the exceptions, basically cast them aside. It’s great to know the little quirks of these run-of-the-mill words, and loads of fun pointing out the little exceptions and look like a big, jerky smarty-pants. But the chances are overwhelming that they won’t come up in day-to-day conversation or writing.

So remember Grammar Girl’s aardvark. Affect is a verb, effect is a noun.

Sources:
  • http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/affect-versus-effect?page=all
  • http://www.diffen.com/difference/Affect_vs_Effect
  • http://www.dailywritingtips.com/affect-vs-effect/
  • http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/03/affect-versus-effect/
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