Tag Archives: confusing words

Affect or Effect?

Many writers are befuddled by affect and effect. Today I’m going to offer you some practical tips, unconventional advice, and advanced information about these two words.

Here’s a trick for keeping them straight: Affect is usually an action – both affect and action start with “a.”

Effect is usually a thing: the effect. Did you notice there are two e’s in a row? The effect.

Let’s go on to the unconventional advice. Here it is: Don’t use the verb affect. Ever. Here’s why: It’s vague.

For example:

The new medication affected his glucose level.

Did the medication raise the glucose level – or drop it? Was the change beneficial – or harmful?

I used to circle affect on students’ papers and ask for a revision with a more specific word. Here’s what I would get back:

The new medication altered his glucose level.


You can choose from some useful substitutes: help, harm, benefit, improve, damage…you get the idea.

Let’s go on to the advanced information. Earlier I told you that affect is usually an action, and effect is usually a thing. Why did I fudge with “usually”? I did that because professionals use these words in specialized ways.

  1. Effect can be a verb (action) that means “bring about change”: “The benefits effected by the new policy did not justify its cost.”
  2. Psychologists sometimes use affect to mean emotion: “The dramatic changes in affect proved that the new therapy was working.”

I suggest leaving these two usages to the specialists.

Before we return to conventional usage of affect and effect, allow me a digression. I struggle with the words petal, pedal, and peddle. Just this morning I saw peddle used correctly in a newspaper article, and my immediate reaction was that it was wrong. I had to stop and think before I mentally congratulated the journalist for getting it right.

Petal (which I always confuse with pedal) is a particular problem because I do all of my husband’s typing for him – and he is, of course, a garden writer. Do you have any idea how many plants have petals?

My point is that I always slow down, double-check, and ultimately get these troublesome words right (even when my husband is impatiently waiting to dictate the next sentence about his damned petunias).

So here’s some advice when you’re dealing with confusing words like affect and effect: Get out a dictionary, go online, call your mother-in-law who’s a grammar curmudgeon – do whatever you have to do, but don’t guess when you encounter a troublesome word!

question mark cube Pixabay ok


Is Fishes Correct?

A friend and his son visited an aquarium recently and came home with a grammar question: Is fishes correct?

Answer: Sometimes.

Language is an amazingly efficient communication tool. Often a single well-chosen word can convey a wealth of information. Fishes is a good example, telling you that a person is talking about several species grouped together.

If you have a tank of goldfish, you would say, “I fed my fish this morning.” But if you have blue gouramis, blind cavefish, and zebra fish (as we once did), you would say, “I fed my fishes this morning.”

It’s the same with deer. My younger sister often sees white-tailed deer in the back yard of her rural Massachusetts home. But if she lived in, say, Montana, she might see both white-tailed deer and mule deer in her back yard. In that case (being my sister and therefore a person who takes usage seriously), she would say, “I saw several deers today.”

This usage explains why you sometimes hear or read the word peoples. When you’re grouping human beings together, they’re simply called people:

Many people in the United States worry about global warming.

But when you’re talking about several ethnic groups, use peoples:

Anthropologists study the peoples of the world.

King George VI used people this way in a famous remark he made during World War II. Someone in a cheering crowd called out to him, “Thank God for a good King.” His reply, “Thank God for a good people,” shows that he could have been an excellent English teacher as well as a very effective king. Good for him.

A portrait of King George VI

                                        King George VI


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


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)



Fun with Words

Today I’m going to talk about “mismatched” words – words that sound (to some people, anyway) as if they should mean something different from their actual dictionary definitions.

I’m going to start with two words that cause problems for me, and then I’ll go on to a few words that have befuddled people I know.

  1. Pusillanimous
    I always have to look this one up. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that such a long and fancy word means “cowardly” or “timid.”
  2. Nonplussed
    It would help if I knew the meaning of plussed – but there’s no such word, so I’m out of luck. Nonplussed means “surprised” or “unsure.” Lately it’s been taking on the opposite meaning because so many people are as confused as I’ve been. This is a good word to avoid!

Now we’ll go on to words that have created problems for some of my friends:

  1. Penultimate
    One of my friends used to think that penultimate was an emphatic form of ultimate (sort of like “most” and “utmost”). He would talk about the “penultimate outrage,” for example. But the dictionary meaning of penultimate is “second-to-the-last”: “Our song is the penultimate number in the show.”
  2. Strait
    If you think of the Straits of Gibraltar, you’ll find it easy to remember that strait means “narrow” – not “straight”! A straitjacket is a restraint that wraps tightly around a mental patient. A straitlaced person is someone who’s narrow-minded and inflexible.
  3. Notoriety
    Many people confuse notoriety with “noted” and “noteworthy.” But notoriety is actually associated with bad or criminal behavior.

Can you think of any words that seem mismatched? 

Straits of Gibraltar

                                 Straits of Gibraltar


Blond or Blonde?

No, this isn’t going to be about the Bob Dylan recording (fans out there know that Blonde on Blonde is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time).

But let’s talk about the title for a moment. If you look it up on Wikipedia, it’s spelled Blond on Blonde (unless someone has corrected it by now). So what about that final e? Does it mean anything? Does it make a difference?

Blond or blonde?

Go to www.Dictionary.com, and you’ll discover that the adjective is correctly spelled without the e: Although my hair was blond when I was little, it’s light brown now.

But if you’re referring to a woman with blond hair, you’re supposed to add the e:

Q: Why are dumb blonde jokes so short? A: So brunettes can remember them.

(I couldn’t resist. Incidentally, I’m a blonde.)

The blonde/blond distinction is a subtle one, and Dictionary.com notes that even some good writers ignore it.

Here’s a thought, however: Once in a while you’re going to encounter a language fanatic (like me) who knows the difference and looks for that final e. Why not take the opportunity to impress me?



Subject-Verb Agreement Isn’t Always Easy

The editor in my brain is always on duty. So I paid attention when a red light flashed in my head after I’d read this claim in a private school ad in the New York Times Magazine:

A boarding arts high school, where the best in academic and arts education go hand-in-hand.

Did you spot the mistake? I don’t mean the sentence fragment – that’s OK in an ad, especially if it’s acting as a headline or attention-getter.

The problem is subject-verb agreement. (Click here and read Rule 4). The subject is “best,” so the verb should be “goes”:

A boarding arts high school, where the best in academic and arts education goes hand-in-hand.  CORRECT

But that “hand-in-hand” creates a new problem. First, the sentence sounds wrong. You’re expecting go, not goes (unless you’re an English teacher.) More seriously, the new sentence doesn’t make sense. How can one thing (best) go hand-in-hand? It’s nonsensical.

Sentences like these are the reason my husband sometimes catches me staring blankly at the computer screen. I know what I want to say, but this @#$%&! English language won’t let me say it.

I have no idea how you could fix that sentence about the boarding arts high school. Does that mean that my Ph.D. in English is going to be revoked?

What you’d have to do is figure out how to make “best” plural: best experiences, best instructors, best resources…something like that.

Gee whiz, though…if you’re running an expensive private school, please get the grammar right. Or do what I always do: Throw out the sentence and start over.



Less or Fewer?

I usually shop at Publix, a grocery chain located here in the Southeast. Their customer service is outstanding – why go anywhere else?

But I also appreciate their commitment to good writing. For a long time their stores featured a sign that proclaimed, “We will never, knowingly, disappoint you.” Good sentence: I approve.

But at some point (and I think this was a good decision) the commas around “knowingly” disappeared. Now the sentence flows without interruption: “We will never knowingly disappoint you.”

Where I really see the commitment to good English is at the express line, which proclaims that it’s for customers with “10 or fewer items.” A lesser grocery chain (ha!) would have said “less than 10 items.”

How do you know which is correct – less or fewer?

Here’s the rule: Use “fewer” for things you can count; use “less” for things you can’t count. So it would be less coffee but fewer cups of coffee. You can’t count coffee, but you can count cups.

“Less” and “fewer” cause a great deal of confusion, and I congratulate Publix for getting “fewer” right. So many people don’t. And here, perversely, is what I’ve been hearing more and more often lately: “Fewer than one.” Nope. “Less than one.” So you would say, “There’s less than one day to shop for my brother’s wedding.”

But now it’s time for me to go to Publix to salute that sign over the express line.

Publix Wikipedia ok



This week my husband and I took Amtrak to Jupiter, Florida, where we spent two days fishing (and releasing our catch) with a guide. I had bought a Sony Pocket Reader expressly for trips like this one. It’s a lightweight electronic reading device, similar to a Kindle, that can hold plenty of books, saving space and weight in my suitcase.

Turns out I should have saved some of that space for an unabridged dictionary. One of the books I loaded onto my Pocket Reader was an anthology of writings by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist whose articles and books I’ve always enjoyed. In a reminiscence about a patient who’d had sleeping sickness, I came across these three words: oculogyria, palilalic, and coprolalic.

I copied them so that I could look them up at www.Dictionary.com when I returned. “Oculogyria,” it turns out, means “The limits of rotation of the eyeballs.” (There’s a handy word!) “Palilalic” wasn’t listed at all (a Google search shows that it refers to a speech defect in which words are unnecessarily repeated). The last word on my list, “coprolalic,” was misspelled: Dictionary.com listed it as “coprolaliac” and gave the meaning as “scatalogical” (an adjective referring to bathroom humor).

Bad writing. I get the feeling that Sacks, a medical doctor, was showing off, or too lazy to try to make himself clear – or simply didn’t care whether his readers understood him or not. Even worse, his editor didn’t bother to challenge him about those three words.

I came across a similar problem in an article I edited about six months ago: The author had used the word “paremiological,” which again isn’t listed at Dictionary.com. A Google search finally unearthed the meaning. (It’s an adjective referring to proverbs.)

There’s a simple principle that all writers should follow: Make yourself clear.

Which isn’t the same as making yourself sound simpleminded and boring – a false choice that many writers talk themselves into.

In fact I think you could argue that clarity and sophistication should always go together in professional writing. The trick is making yourself understood without regressing into choppy little sentences and oversimplified word choices.

You could go a step further and say that there’s a huge philosophical issue here. Very few ideas are new. How do you make them interesting and fresh?

If this question interests you (and it should), you’re in good company – and I’m not just talking about writers.  Suzanne Farrell, the great ballerina from the New York City Ballet, said that her greatest challenge was to make the steps interesting. I’m a dancer myself (ballroom, not ballet), and I know what Farrell was talking about.

But our subject is writing. So how do you make sentences interesting when you’re using a language that’s over a thousand years old? Here are some suggestions:

1.  Go ahead and use unfamiliar words, but be careful to define them in the context. Oliver Sacks could have said, “She improvised a variety of coprolaliac limericks that astonished me. Where had this prim woman acquired a gift for bathroom humor?”

2.  Use a semicolon now and then. It makes you look brilliant, but it’s no harder to understand than a sentence ending with a period (which is pretty much what a semicolon sentence is). I love semicolons; they add elegance to my writing.

3.  Use embedded clauses, as I’m doing here, to combine two ideas. Embedded clauses, when used effectively, work much better than sentences strung together with “and.”

4.  Put yourself on a reading program. It’s a great way to absorb sentence patterns; you’ll soon notice the difference in your writing. Thanks to Bartleby.com, which is just a few clicks away, we have instant access to countless great writers.

5.  Most important, don’t be fooled into thinking that big words are going to impress readers. It’s foolish to write gloriously coprolaliac limericks – or anything else – if nobody understands what you’re trying to say.

Oliver Sacks Wikipedia 2

Oliver Sacks



Snuck or Sneaked?

Which is correct – snuck or sneaked? That choice – once firmly settled in favor of sneaked – is once again up for grabs.

I just finished reading a fascinating book about polygamy: Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall (ghost-written by Lisa Pulitzer). Wall was married, against her will, at the age of fourteen at the command of Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed “prophet” of the polygamous FLDS sect (now serving multiple sentences for forcing underage marriages and other crimes).

The book is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at life in a polygamous community. It veers back-and-forth between normalcy (school, friends, family celebrations) and shock (the types of control inflicted on members of the sect). I thought that Lisa Pulitzer did an excellent job of turning Elissa Wall’s  harrowing story into a book.

But then there’s snuck, which showed up in the book multiple times. Language experts call it “an informal variant” of sneaked (which is preferred in formal writing). You could argue that an uneducated girl like Elissa Wall would naturally use snuck (the sect did not permit her to finish high school). Valid argument. But all the other writing is formal, right down to lots of semicolons and conjunctive adverbs. All those snucks seemed jarring and out of place.

When to use snuck? It’s one of those unsolvable problems (like why the Mona Lisa is smiling).  I view it as a jokey, informal word, a step or two above ain’t (a word I use myself when I’m kidding around). Garrison Keillor uses snuck in his Lake Woebegone stories.

But in a serious book like Elissa Wall’s I would have used sneaked (unless I was writing dialogue, where snuck would help make the conversation sound natural and real. Hard to do, by the way).

In 50 years snuck will probably have become an accepted alternative to sneaked. Right now, though, we’re in transition time. I would (and will) stick to sneaked.

It’s common to view this kind of evolution as an example of the deterioration of our language. Nonsense. It’s a natural process, and we’re not losing anything. In the meantime, however, we need to be careful.

Good writers are very sensitive to these time-will-tell issues. If you’re too slow to adopt a change, you sound stodgy and old-fashioned. If you’re slightly ahead of the pack, you risk sounding careless. And so we tap-dance through the dictionary, hoping we’re making the right choices. It’s part of the fascination of language.

Stolen Innocence