Affect versus effect: which is which?

In commenting on the dash–hyphen post a couple days ago (and that’s an en dash between the words “dash” and “hyphen” 🙂 ), Kathleen suggested that I write a post about “affect” and “effect.”  Great idea!  Using “affect” and “effect” correctly can be tricky because each word can be both a verb and a noun.  So here goes.

Usually “affect” is a verb, and “effect” is a noun.  Affect is the action, and effect is the thing resulting from that action.  When something affects something else, it causes an effect.

One way to remember this is that “a” comes before “e” in the alphabet, and something has to Affect something else to cause an Effect.  The “a” word happens first, and the “e” word happens second.  The “e” word is a result of the “a” word.  So if you’re writing about a thing that has been caused by something else, then the word you want is “effect.”

The bad weather affected people’s moods.

One effect of the bad weather was grumpy people.

The bad weather affected people’s moods.  After that “affecting” occurred, there was an “effect” (which was grumpy people).  Also, notice that the “e” word happens second (as a result of the action); but it doesn’t necessarily have to go second in terms of word order within the sentence

In addition, the words “of” and “on” are often associated with “effect.”

One effect OF the bad weather . . .

The bad weather’s effect ON people was . . .

One effect the bad weather had ON people was . . .

What makes “affect” and “effect” harder to keep straight is is the fact that sometimes “affect” is a noun and “effect” is a verb.  These are used in pretty limited contexts though.

“Affect” as a noun is a term from psychology, referring to a feeling or emotion as opposed to a rational thought.  You would rarely use “affect” as a noun in ordinary writing situations, I’m guessing.  The place I’ve seen it used most is in fiction when, for example, an author describes a character’s emotionless tone of voice by saying it has a “flat affect.”

“Effect” as a verb is much more common than “affect” as a noun.  Fortunately, though, it is used in an extremely narrow sense.  When used as a verb, “effect” means to create, to make, to bring into existence.  It is often used together with the word “change,” as in to “effect change.”

NOTE: I have often seen affect/effect misused in this context.  To “effect” change is to “create” change.  To “affect” change would be to “influence” change.  For example, someone could negatively “affect” change by slowing it (change) down.  But someone could negatively “effect” change by creating bad laws that could hurt people.

Sometimes “effect” is used as a noun that almost seems derived from the word as a verb.  To say that a law takes “effect” on a certain date means that the law comes into existence on that date.  The law may have already been “effected” (created) by the legislature, but it doesn’t officially exist until the date it takes “effect” or becomes “effective.”

The main thing to remember with “affect” and “effect,” though, is that in almost every case you’d ordinarily use these words, “affect” will be a verb meaning to influence or modify, and “effect” will be the noun that follows from this influencing or modifying.

“A” before “e.”

Does that make sense?

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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7 Responses to Affect versus effect: which is which?

  1. This is a terrific explanation. I’m going to bookmark this post to share with students who confuse the two words. Using the “a” to remember both “affect” and “action” also helps.

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  2. Pingback: Session 6 Snaps « Ubiquitous Phenomena

  3. Pingback: Session 6 Snaps- Blase, To Affect, Fat Sucking ? | Phenomena of Awesomeness

  4. Re-read your affect vs effect post. You explained it far better than any English/Grammar teacher I have ever had. No wonder you are such a good prof and that your students love you.

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