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English Lesson 10: Correct Use of Affect and Effect

May 17th, 2008

affect-effect-usage.jpgThe words affect and effect have been the source of many headaches and much confusion even among relatively experienced English users. This is understandable because the two words are very similar in pronunciation and spelling, yet have some subtle differences in meanings and usage that can be difficult to detect. Each word has one meaning that is far more common than the others, but the less common meanings are used often enough in print to create confusion for many readers. In this week’s lesson, I hope to clear things up by providing correct usage examples of the most common meanings first and then explaining some of the more esoteric or archaic usages of these words so that you can be aware of them when reading other publications.

First of all, let us begin by sorting out the different meanings of affect. The most common meaning is to influence, change, or noticeably alter something; sometimes this will apply to people and their feelings or emotions but not always. In either case this form of the word is used as a verb. For example:

  1. If you drop phenolphthalein into a clear solution with a pH greater than 8.2, it will affect the appearance of the solution by changing it to a very noticeable pink color.
  2. It is debatable whether violent movies or video games truly affect those who view them in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, there is also a noun form of affect that is rather esoteric and used mostly in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. It refers to a person’s disposition or perceived mental state, particularly regarding outward emotions, body language, and facial expressions. For example:

  1. After treatment, the patient remained calm and showed no signs of a hostile affect.
  2. The soldiers seen on television had been carefully chosen for blandness of affect. — Norman Mailer

Finally, there is a third meaning of affect that is rarely used in casual conversation but is sometimes seen in literature. It is a verb form like the first one but with a significantly different usage. It means to emulate, imitate, or copy something, usually with the motive of displaying a fa├žade regarding appearance or emotion.

  1. Although the Scottish princess affected a bonny disposition, she was secretly suspicious of the other faction’s emissary.
  2. In order to remain relatively inconspicuous and gather information, the spy affected the manner of an ordinary merchant.

The word effect is usually used as a noun and refers to the result, consequence, or outcome of something. In fact, we could say that in order to produce an effect, something first has to be affected. The noun form of effect can also refer to the overall result of scientific phenomena such as the magnetic, photovoltaic, or greenhouse effects. Some examples:

  1. Although it is possible for global warming to occur during certain time periods, I am still skeptical about the idea that its effects would be as catastrophic as the alarmists claim.
  2. If you have ever noticed how hot the inside of a car can get when it is exposed to direct sunlight while its doors are closed, you have experienced a good example of the greenhouse effect.

Meanwhile, it is also possible for effect to be used as a verb in certain instances. This can sometimes create confusion because affect is also used as a verb. The verb form of effect means to produce, make, enforce, accomplish, bring into existence, or cause something to happen. For example:

  1. By supporting Bob Barr’s candidacy with the Libertarian Party, we hope to effect change in the dynamics of the 2008 presidential election.
  2. The new fiscal policies were designed to effect a passive income through savings and investments.

Now we can look at some examples of incorrect vs. correct usage. For simplicity’s sake (and to keep this post from becoming unbearably long) I will stick to examples of the most commonly used forms of the two words in question.

Incorrect: Most pharmaceutical drugs have both favorable and unfavorable side affects.

Correct: Most pharmaceutical drugs have both favorable and unfavorable side effects.

Incorrect: We hope that our vote totals will be high enough to effect the outcome of the election.

Correct: We hope that our vote totals will be high enough to affect the outcome of the election.

Incorrect: Putting too many annoying ads on your blog can have an unfavorable affect on the experience of its readers.

Correct: Putting too many annoying ads on your blog can have an unfavorable effect on the experience of its readers.

Incorrect: Significant changes in the value of the dollar can effect the purchasing power of Americans when they travel to foreign countries.

Correct: Significant changes in the value of the dollar can affect the purchasing power of Americans when they travel to foreign countries.

For next week, I’m thinking about covering the issue of ad vs. add. This is one that I do not see much coverage of in most of the established grammar guides, yet I have been seeing a surprisingly high number of errors related to misuse of these words recently. Compared to this week’s conundrum, it should make for a relatively short and simple post.

12 Responses to “English Lesson 10: Correct Use of Affect and Effect”

  1. comment number 1 by: Samsara

    Good. Next time you feel like engaging in wordology could you deal with a word that has been so misused that it is now affecting many a young person’s vocabulary?

    The effects of the bastardization of regardless combined with irrespective have resulted in movies, talk shows, real life, and even recent dicitionaries, positing irregardless as an acceptable word. [Kudos to dictionaries I have seen for at least recognizing it as a non-word; A double negative, for example, and attempting to find the semantic origins.]

    I’ll discuss my problems with the term, conversate, later.


  2. comment number 2 by: Sonnie

    Good lesson, thanks for sharing.

  3. comment number 3 by: Jrayrice


  4. comment number 4 by: Deepak

    Always had a problem with affect and effect and advise and advice ..lol . Thx for the lesson. Bookmarked you for further lessons :)


  5. comment number 5 by: Patricia

    You have certainly touched a delicate spot with me. As a teacher of over 40 years, I cannot tell you the number of student papers I have corrected with the “affect/effect” mistake.

  6. comment number 6 by: amy

    i always thought i had a fairly good grasp of the language but affect/effect always stumped me. i saw the title of this post and thought “now there’s something i need”. thanks!

  7. comment number 7 by: Karlonia


    Thank you for your comments. I am pleased to see that people are able to benefit from the information presented here.

    Eventually I will address the issue of non-words such as “irregardless” and “anyways” — currently the Answers.com dictionary has both of these listed as “nonstandard”. I am also planning on covering advice/advise as well. I have seen several instances of people using advice as a verb when they really mean advise.

  8. comment number 8 by: Shirley

    Thanks for sharing this great information! I have a problem with people using effect and affect incorrectly in their sentences. Other words I see used incorrectly are there, their and they’re. Thanks for the English lesson!

  9. comment number 9 by: Kat

    I have to thank you for this lesson on affect and effect. I may have to re-read it BUT wanted to thank you for putting it out there. It’s a word we use ALL the time and I’m sure when we do, at least I know I do, question if I used the correct word.

  10. comment number 10 by: John Wilson

    Excellent lesson, but I am sure “affected” is also used as what I would have to describe as an adjective, as in “…….his manner was decidedly affected…….” meaning it was not genuine, or put another way, “…..he was only acting like that, fo effect..”

  11. comment number 11 by: Don

    Hopefully, this lesson will have the proper affect. If it does, the effects will be positive. :)

  12. comment number 12 by: Bri

    I have just discovered this website and find it quite informative, as well as amusing. I must point out, and I’m surprised no one else noticed, that “foreign” is spelled incorrectly in the cartoon above. :)

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