Affect or Effect?

Which is correct: affect or effect – and how do you know? Today I’m going to try to clear up the mystery – and I’ll also offer some unconventional advice about these two problematic words.

Let’s start with the conventional advice. Most sources say that affect is usually a verb, and effect is usually a noun.

Did you notice that little qualifier – usually? First-year college students see that “usually” and start getting nervous.

I would argue that you don’t have to worry about that usually, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

But first let’s deal with “verb” and “noun.” I find it helpful to remember that affect is an action: they both start with “a.”

Smoking affects your health. CORRECT

The weather forecast affected our vacation plans.  CORRECT

Effect is a noun (thing). Looking for a, an, and the can help you determine whether you’re dealing with a noun:

I’m still feeling the effects of that all-nighter I pulled three days ago.  CORRECT

Weight gain is a side effect of that medication.  CORRECT

OK! Let’s move on to the next concept. I have always told (and will continue to tell!) writers to avoid affect. Here’s why: it’s vague.

My new job affected my relationship with Dave.  VAGUE

Did your relationship get better or worse? “Affected” isn’t any help here. When I was teaching first-year college students, I always circled “affected” and insisted that students change it to a more specific word (harmed, improved, weakened, strengthened, etc.) Here’s what I would get:

My new job altered my relationship with Dave.  VAGUE

Sigh.

But there’s good news too. If you really think about what you’re trying to say, and you try hard to come up with a strong word, you’re less likely to get trapped by the affect-or-effect confusion.

And that takes us back to something I said earlier: affect is usually a verb, and effect is usually a noun. So how do you know when things get switched around, so that affect is a noun and effect is a verb?

Here’s the likely answer: when you’re a published, professional writer. To put it differently: those alternative usages are so uncommon that you don’t have to think about them for ordinary writing tasks. (Look me up when you get your doctorate in psychology, and we’ll talk more.)

Here’s what I mean. Psychologists sometimes use affect as a noun in professional articles and books:

One sign of successful therapy is more appropriate manifestations of affect.  CORRECT

Effect can be used as a verb to mean “bring about”:

The committee is working hard to effect better relationships between departments.  CORRECT

The advertising program effected an increase in enrollment.  CORRECT

So – what’s the takeaway for a confused writer? Here are some tips:

  • substitute a more specific word for affect whenever you can
  • use a, an, and the to help you decide when to use effect
  • use a print or online dictionary as a backup when you’re unsure about affect/effect (or any word usage issue)

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