Affect vs. Effect

By Mark Nichol

Among the pairs of words writers often confuse, affect and effect might be the most perplexing, perhaps because their meanings are so similar. Affect, derived from affectus, from the Latin word afficere, “to do something to, act on,” is easily conflated with effect, borrowed from Anglo-French, ultimately stemming from the Latin word effectus, from efficere, “to bring about.”

Affect

The various senses of affect, each followed by a sentence demonstrating them, follow:

A noun meaning “mental state”: “In his report, the psychiatrist, noting his lack of expression or other signs of emotion, described his affect as flat.”

A verb meaning “to produce an effect, to influence”: “I knew that my opinion would affect her choice, so I deliberately withheld it.”

A verb meaning “to pretend” or “to put on”: “She tried to affect an air of nonchalance, though she was visibly agitated.”

Words with affect as the root, followed by their use in a sentence, include the following:

Affectation: A noun meaning “self-conscious behavior”: “The girl’s affectation of sophisticated maturity was undercut by the relentless snapping of her chewing gum.”

Affection: A noun meaning “kind or loving emotion”: “Her grandfather’s deep affection for her was obvious in his heartwarming smile.”

Disaffected: An adjective meaning “discontented, rebellious”: “Disaffected youth dismayed by the poor job market and the larger issue of a society that does not seem to value them have been joining the protest movement in ever greater numbers.” (This word is a case of an antonym that has outlived the original term from which it was derived in counterpoint; writers and speakers no longer express, in the sense of “favorably disposed,” that a person is affected.)

Unaffected: An adjective with two distinct senses: the literal meaning of “not influenced or altered” (“They seemed disturbingly unaffected by the tragic news”) and the surprisingly older, figurative meaning “genuine” (“The youth’s candid, unaffected demeanor appealed to her after the stilted arrogance of her many suitors”).

Effect

The various senses of effect, each followed by a sentence demonstrating them, follow:

A noun meaning “the result of a cause”: “The effect of the lopsided vote was a loss of confidence in the chairman.”

A noun meaning “an impression”: “The soft, gentle tone has a calming effect.”

A noun, usually in plural form, meaning “personal property, possession”: “Among the effects found in the deceased man’s pockets was a small book with his name self-inscribed.”

A verb meaning “to accomplish”: “His newfound sense of responsibility effected a positive change in her attitude toward him.”

Words with effect as the root, followed by their use in a sentence, include the following:

Aftereffect: A noun, usually in plural form, meaning “something that follows a cause”: “The aftereffects of the decision are still being felt years later.”

Effective: An adjective meaning “successful”: “The insect repellent was effective at keeping the mosquitoes at bay, which made for a pleasant outing.”

Effectual: An adjective meaning “able to produce a desired effect”: “Our conclusion is that mediation is an effectual strategy for obtaining a mutually satisfying outcome.”

The noun efficiency and the adjective efficient, though not based on the root effect, share its etymological origin and mean, respectively, “productivity” and “productive” in the sense of accomplishing something with a minimum of effort in relation to outcome. Efficacy (“the power to produce a desired effect”) and efficacious (“able to produce a desired effect”) are also related. Another, unexpected word of related origin is feckless (“weak, worthless”), which is rare and has lost its antonym, feckful, through long disuse. Feck is a shortened form of effect developed in Scottish English.

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15 Responses to “Affect vs. Effect”

  • Kris

    This simple, straightforward article should be yearly required reading from sixth grade through university degree completion. (Along with a similar article on “there, their, and they’re!)

    Thanks!

    Kris

  • Charlie

    I was taught an affect can create an effect. May not be 100% correct, but it does help keep things straight.

  • Mackenzie

    First, let me say (as a frequent reader but first time commenter): I really love this blog!

    My mom is a psychologist and she used the term ‘affect’ frequently to describe people. I always wondered what she meant when she said things like: “You probably just thought she didn’t get it because she has a really flat affect.”

    I would probably define that word as “tendency to express emotion” rather than “mental state”. I think what my mom was trying to say is that although a person’s ability or inclination to express an emotion may be limited, the degree to which they feel it on the inside doesn’t have to be.

    Lastly, as a copy editor, I have to say that misuse of the verbs ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ is SUPER prevalent and even professional writers with long careers misuse them all the time! I might print this and attach it to every piece that suffers the error from here on out… 🙂

  • thebluebird11

    I must be one of the lucky few to be blessed with never getting these 2 words confused. Never had a problem.
    Just to confuse the unlucky masses, though, I want to mention (and here, Mackenzie will know what I’m talking about), many psychiatric disorders are termed “affective disorders,” defined as “mental disorders characterized by consistent, pervasive alteration in mood, and affecting thoughts, emotions and behaviors” (e.g., depression).
    Sorry ’bout that, chief… 😉

  • Marsha Randolph

    If I rewrote this blog 1000 times I would still get those two words confused. I know the difference my fingers just want to write the wrong word.

  • Valerie

    Great post. You don’t mention pronunciation though. I’m from the north of England and have always actually pronounced them differently:

    affect with first vowel as schwa
    effect with first vowel as [i]

    I only realised recently – in the light of the written confusion – that in most other speech they are pronounced the same.

  • Joseph Rinaldo

    I have a lot more trouble with words like “lie” and “lay”.

  • Precise Edit

    Here’s how “Which Word Do I Use?” explains the difference between “effect” and “affect.”

    “Effect” is a noun that approximately means “result.” You can write “the effect,” “one effect,” and “an effect” because “effect” is a noun. These two sentences use effect correctly as a noun:

    “We don’t know what effect healthy food snacks will have on children’s food choices.”
    “Caffeine has a soothing effect on children with ADHD.”

    “Effect” is sometimes used as a verb to mean “cause” or “create,” as in “We will effect a change.”

    “Affect” is a verb that approximately means “alter.” You can write “affects,” “affecting,” and “affected” because it is a verb.

    “Affect” is a transitive verb, meaning it is done to something. Here, affect is used correctly as a transitive verb:

    “The new legislation will affect the way we buy cars.”
    “Cold weather conditions have affected zoo attendance.”

    Affect can only be used as a noun when you are writing about an emotional response. A person’s affect is his or her emotional state. In all other cases, it is a verb.

    If you’re not sure which one you need, and you can’t decide whether you need a noun or a verb, try replacing the word with “result” and then with “alter.” Which one is grammatically correct and approximates what you are trying to say? If “result,” then use “effect.” If “alter,” then use “affect.”

    @Joseph Rinaldo, regarding “lie” and “lay.”

    Lay: To put or place something. (Dictionary.com has over 40 individual definitions for lay, but almost all of them can be summed up by this.)

    Use: In its most common uses, “lay is a transitive verb. This means that this is an action done to something. Remember: You lay something down, even if that something is yourself.

    Lie: As discussed here, “lie” means to be in a horizontal, prone, or resting position. (It also means to tell a falsehood, but that’s not the type of “lie” we’re talking about here.)

    Use: In its most common uses, “lie” is an intransitive verb, which means that it does not use an object. Remember: Something lies on something else.

    I hope this helps.

  • Ken K

    The Palestinians and Israelis must effect a peace treaty, and not affect one.

    How did I do using “effect vs. affect”?

  • Jeani

    @Joseph Rinaldo, regarding “lie” and “lay.”
    The information provided earlier is not exactly correct:
    OnTarget had the following definitions with examples:

    “Lay” is a verb meaning to put or place something somewhere.It takes a direct object. Its principal parts are “lay,” “laid,” “laid,” and “laying.”

    Examples: Every day I lay the book on the table. Yesterday I laid the book on the table. I have laid the book on the table many times.I am laying the book on the table right now.

    In all these examples, the verb is a form of the word “lay,” and the direct object is “book.”

    “Lie” is, in this context, a verb meaning to recline. It does not take an object. Its principal parts are “lie,” “lay,” “lain,” and “lying.”

    Examples: Every night I lie down. I lay down last night. I have lain down many times. I am lying down right now.

    Hope this is helpful! God Bless from Alaska

  • Kath

    There was a lovely example of “lie” v “lay” in one of Bill Bryson’s books, it goes something like “Unless you’re producing eggs, use ‘lie’.”

  • magnoliasouth

    This is much easier to understand than Grammar Girl’s. She went off on a wild tangent on aardvarks which only made it more confusing. lol! Not sure why. The comments there indicate it’s helpful, but I think they’re still really confused but don’t know it yet. Heh.

  • Mark Nichol

    Magnoliasouth:

    The aardvark is one of GG’s site mascots, so she frequently uses him in her examples. I like the site, but I agree that the discussions are not always as clear as they could be. As for the commenters on that site, they are certainly not as brilliant, talented, and attractive as the people who comment at Daily Writing Tips.

  • melissa

    @Joseph Rinaldo

    I once heard the following logic used to differentiate lie and lay.

    People lie, things lay.

    I don’t know that this reasoning applies in every instance, but it sure helps me keep them straight.

  • ICAL TEFL

    Just use the simple mnemonic NEVA and you are covered for 99% of the time.

    Noun Effect – Verb Affect

    Simple! 🙂

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