Pesky Words (Homophones) – Affect vs. Effect

I’m back with the second of my Pesky Words feature and today I’m focusing on what could arguably be the two most troublesome words out there. Yes, I’m looking at affect and effect. I think we can all say that these two words have caused us to scratch our heads in consternation at some point.

So, what are their definitions? For this I turn to my trusted Oxford English Dictionary:

 

affect1 v. have an effect on; make a difference to. touch the feelings of.

affect2 v. pretend to have or feel. use, wear, or assume pretentiously or so as to

Impress.

affect3 n. psychology emotion or desire as influencing behaviour.1

Already we have three different meanings for affect and we haven’t yet factored in effect, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

Effect n. 1 a change which is a result or consequence of an action or other cause. An impression produced in a person’s mind: his words had a soothing effect. 2 the state of being or becoming operative: the law came into effect. The extent to which something succeeds or is operative. 3 (effects) the lighting, sound or scenery used in a play or film. 4 (effects) personal belongings. 5 physics a physical phenomenon, typically named after its discoverer: the Coriolis effect. v. cause to happen, bring about.1

As we can see from the definitions affect is most often a verb, therefore it is concerned with ‘doing’ and ‘making a difference’. Effect, on the other hand, is primarily a noun meaning ‘a result’ or ‘outcome’. An easy way to remember this is with the acronym RAVEN:

Remember Affect is a Verb and Effect is a Noun.

We are focusing on the first definition of affect as this causes the most confusion.

To affect

As affect is something that happens – it will affect you, I was affected by – it can’t be used with an article, e.g. ‘an’ or ‘the’, because it is an action not an object/thing. An easy way to ascertain if affect is the correct word is to replace it in the sentence with the word ‘transform’ or ‘change’. If it still makes sense, affect is correct. So, for example:

‘Does fracking affect the environment?’ also makes sense as ‘Does fracking transform the environment?’

An effect

As a noun, then, effect can be used with the preceding articles ‘an’ and ‘the’ as it is an object/thing. For example, special effects in films are a physical thing. A way to ascertain if effect is the correct word is to change it for a noun that means the same thing – ‘outcome’ or ‘consequence’ – and see if it still makes sense. For example:

‘Every action they took had an effect’ also makes sense as ‘Every action they took had an outcome’.

In a nutshell, when it comes to affect vs. effect the things to remember are:

1.    Affect is primarily a verb and can’t be used with an article.

2.    Affect can be substituted for words such as ‘transform’ or ‘change’ and still make sense.

3.    Effect is primarily a noun and can be used with an article.

4.    Effect can be substituted for words such as ‘outcome’ or ‘consequence’ and still make sense.

I hope this little guide helps.

Happy writing!


1Stevenson, A. and Waite, M. 2011, Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1911

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