Affect and Effect: A Refresher Course


confused_bug_color from Flickr via Wylio


© 2006 Ben Pid­ding­ton, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

A lot of peo­ple get con­fused about the dif­fer­ence between affect and effect, not to men­tion how they vary as nouns and verbs. I was dis­mayed, how­ever, to see such a mix-up sur­face in The New York Times. Alas, every­one makes mis­takes, so let’s learn from theirs:

In a Decem­ber 5 arti­cle titled “Rolling Stone Cites Doubts on Its Story of Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia Rape,” the text reads:

Helen E. Dra­gas, a mem­ber of the university’s gov­ern­ing Board of Vis­i­tors, said, “No mat­ter how this started, the fact remains that many have come for­ward with cred­i­ble per­sonal sto­ries,” and the uni­ver­sity must affect “a per­ma­nent change of culture.”

Be clear, first, that the mis­used word is not inside quo­ta­tion marks as part of Ms. Dragas’s state­ment, but was cho­sen by the article’s authors. Sec­ondly, it’s easy to see why con­fu­sion comes about in this instance; there is but a fine line between the two verb choices. 

  • To affect (verb) — pro­nounced uh-FECT — means to change or influ­ence some­thing; to have an effect [see below] on it. The sen­tence in the arti­cle might have been cor­rectly writ­ten: “… the uni­ver­sity must affect the culture.”
  • To effect (verb) — pro­nounced ee-FECT — means to bring some­thing about; to accom­plish some­thing, such as (in this case and com­monly) change. So the arti­cle should read: “… the uni­ver­sity must effect ‘a per­ma­nent change of culture.’”

Regard­ing the noun forms of these oft-confused words:

  • An affect (noun) — pro­nounced AFF-ect — refers to how emo­tion is vis­i­ble on a person’s face or in the voice or ges­tures; “a flat affect” refers to a facial expres­sion not show­ing emotion.
  • An effect (noun) — pro­nounced the same as the verb of this spelling: ee-FECT — is a result or out­come; for exam­ple, “The effect of five hours of study was an A on the test.”

Have you seen a gram­mar error that would merit some expla­na­tion? Please send it my way as a com­ment below, and I’ll con­sider it for a future post. (If it’s not a big-name media source that can han­dle the scrutiny, I will not divulge the source and will likely even alter the sen­tence so it’s not attributable.)

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