Monday, March 16, 2009

Effect/ Affect

Last month I said I would write some posts about my own grammar challenges with the hope that I help a few writers who suffer the same fate. Today I thought I’d look at the troublesome words affect and effect.

For years I had no clue about these words. To be honest, I just used them haphazardly. At one point, I put all of my bets on effect, and banned affect from my writing completely, and hoped that at least half of the time I’d be right. I write science textbooks. I’ve never done any research on it, but I believe that science textbooks use the words effect and affect at least 50% more than any other type of writing, so you can imagine the headache I became for my publisher.

I’d looked up the words many times trying to get a handle on their use, but one day in my searching, I realised the thing that sorted it out forever for me.

Affect is a verb.
Effect is a noun.


Now I could say such things as-

The effect of sulphuric acid on your hand is not something that you’re going to enjoy.


If you think that sulphuric acid affected you, wait until you dip your tongue in the sodium hydroxide.

-and confidently know that I was a-okay- grammatically at least.

This is not exactly set in stone as you can have effect behaving out of character, as English words are prone to do, and become a verb. An example would be:

The headmaster effected change in the science lab by banning all play involving acids and bases.

In this case, effect, instead of meaning the end result of an action, means to start, cause or initiate.

Affect also, very occasionally, misbehaves and becomes a noun, though pronounced differently with emphasis on the first syllable as in:

Despite the fact that many students were burned by the acid, with her psychological pathology, she showed very little affect.

You won’t use this often (it’s not even in my dictionary) so it’s best to do like me and forget about it entirely. It will just confuse you. Rather remember effect = noun, affect = verb, but just keep a careful eye on that wily effect when it wants to start something as it will have likely transformed itself into a verb.

As long as you do that you’ll be fine.


Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time writer living in Botswana and blogs at Thoughts from Botswana. She is a member of the One World group, a group of international writers who met on the internet. They put together a collection of short stories and went searching for a publisher. New Internationalist stepped up to the plate and the book, which includes stories from Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, is now on sale at Amazon. Buy it! All royalties go to Doctors without Borders.

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  1. I've looked these up countless times and still have found myself misusing them. So the verb/noun distinction is a good one for keeping me out of trouble. Thanks!

  2. Great advice! I have to look those two up every now and again to make sure I'm using them properly, but the noun/verb method sounds like it could be pretty helpful. Now if only I could come up with a clever way to remember which one is the noun and which was the verb.

    Jenny Bean

  3. This is one of my worst mistakes. Until high school, I thought they were interchangeable. My English teacher didn't agree. :)

    The verb/noun is good to know. I'm with Jenny on trying to think up a good way to remember it.


    Got nothing...

  4. LOL, Meg. If anyone comes up with a good way to remember the distinction, a lot of us will be eager to know. My way of avoiding trouble in usage, was to not use the words at all. It has been challenging to find ways around them, but I have been successful more often than not.

  5. Lauri has such a nice "affect" as she's offering us this advice. LOL.

    Must go before someone bops me...


  6. Your column had the desired effect. I'm a bit more clear on the differences now.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Oh gosh, I love posts like this. This effect/affect thing has been plaguing me for I won't ever forget again. :)

  8. Okay I forgot about that problem- which is a noun which is verb....hmmm. Somehow affect looks more verby to me, I'm not sure why.

    Yes, I used to avoid using my 'problematic words' but it really limits your vocabulary when you have a pile of them like me. As a writer that can become a problem.

  9. I figured something out when I was out on my morning walk/run with my doggies-

    A-Action A-Accept.

    There we go all set- right????

  10. It took me a long time to get these two straight, Lauri. Now how's about a post on which versus that?

    Bob Sanchez

  11. Which and that?
    Now you're getting into some very dodgy territory. Bob, I'll see what I can uncover.

  12. There are so many words like these that for whatever reason have me looking up information before I use them. There are some words I won't use because I fear I will misspell them. There are some, like lay/lie, that I CONSTANTLY have to pick up a grammar book to remember the rules and make sure I get it right.


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