Do you ever get the feeling that the creators of the English language are just messing with you? Like, why are there so many words that sound the same but mean dissimilar (or even the same!) things and may be spelled in wholly different ways? Who thought that was a good idea? How could they have ever expected anyone to learn all these variations and nuances? I think it was all a big game to them. With us as the losers.
Take one of the worst word-pair offenders: “affect” and “effect.” I think only about 15% of the people I know can accurately use these words on 100% of occasions. (That’s the end of the math. I promise.) These two words ARE related. But they’re not interchangeable. Up until now, you either knew the difference intuitively…or you were destined to a lifetime of getting it wrong. I’m going to take a stab at trying to help you tell them apart. Because they’re not like twin children who you can just dress in different colors until you figure out who is who. And let’s be honest, if you have same-sex twins, you probably switched them back in their early days and you don’t even realize it.
Here’s the simplest way to tell these two twins apart. “Affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun. Woo-Hoo, Lis. Awesome intel. Now what the hell does that mean?! Let me break it down.
We’ll start with “affect.” According to Merriam-Webster, to affect means to produce an effect upon. That’s a lot of grammary stuff which boils down to essentially, in the words of The Fixx, one thing leads to another. But within the definition lies the start of the problem. When one of the words can be used to explain of the other, it makes your brain want to explode. By virtue of being a verb, “affect” expresses an action or an occurrence or a state of being.
Case in point: Today’s gloomy weather is affecting me. The weather is acting on me. Negatively, I might add. But that same sentence can be restated very easily using “effect,” thus further demonstrating the symbiosis of these words: “Today’s gloomy weather is having an effect on me.”
You see that little word before “effect”? It’s what’s known as an article. There are three main articles in the English language: “the,” “a,” and “an.” When you see one of those in front of a word, it means the word that follows it is a noun. Sure, there can be other words before a noun like a possessive pronoun (his/hers/theirs/its) or an adjective (meaningful/great/deleterious—I love that word. If you don’t know it, look it up.), but at its simplest, if there is an article (or one of its possessive pronoun or adjective friends) in front of it, BAM! It’s a noun.
So if you’re writing along and you want to use “affect” or “effect” but don’t know which one is the correct meaning and spelling for your sentence, think about whether an article or possessive pronoun would sound right in front of it.
A) “The early-morning departure of her train tomorrow will have a profound _________ on what time she needs to get up.”
B) “The early-morning departure of her train tomorrow will profoundly _________ what time she needs to get up.”
Does the choice between whether to use “affect” and “effect” become clearer in these examples? In example A), you have an article, “an,” so you know what follows has to be a noun. And of the two options, “effect” is your only noun, so that’s what you need to use there. And in example B), the time she needs to get up is dependent on the departure hour of her train. It’s “affected” by that schedule. The schedule has an “effect” upon her wake-up time.
They’re the same, but different. And the proper use of that difference will have an effect on how people assess your intelligence. In a positive way, I promise. Something that is not positively affecting my life is the time I booked my train ticket today. Wake up was brutal.
Here’s another set of examples, because “affect” and “effect” have been plaguing writers for far too long to be satisfied by just one pair of options:
A) “His lack of feelings for her would affect her life in ways she could only begin to imagine.”
B) “As she looked back, she could not deny the changes his rejection had put into effect in her life.”
I went a little rogue with that last sentence on purpose. “Effect” is still used as a noun, and how you know is whether or not you can substitute another noun in its place (not all nouns, of course, but you know that not all words can be coherently substituted for one another.) Same for “affect” and verb replacement.
Reword the sentences using the noun “motion” and its verb form “move,” and you’ll see what I mean. Sentence A now becomes: “His lack of feelings for her would move her life in ways she could only begin to imagine.” And sentence B turns into: “As she looked back, she could not deny the changes his rejection had put into motion in her life.”
Had you substituted “move” into the second sentence, it would have made no sense at all. “As she looked back, she could not deny the changes his words had put into move in her life.” You know immediately that’s wrong. And the more you practice employing “affect” and “effect,” the more immediate your identification of the incorrect word will become.
Yes, there are bunches of different ways to use words containing “affect” and “effect,” but rather than cloud the issue, I’ve just moved those variations to the side. Don’t hesitate to let me know if you’d like to learn any more about any of their other spellings and meanings. You know me, always happy to yammer on at length. And please do leave me a comment with your thoughts on this post. I love to hear from you!
The title of this post is an homage to the Beastie Boys. They had just as big an effect on me as that boy in the second example. And extra special thanks are due to my client—and friend—Cara for reading over the initial draft of this post and being honest enough to tell me it made no sense whatsoever. This is why I stick to editing. Writing is hard!
Originally published April 8, 2014