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Affect and Effect

The distinction between “affect” and “effect” trips up lots of people, but with one or two little mnemonics, you can…

The distinction between “affect” and “effect” trips up lots of people, but with one or two little mnemonics, you can master this tricky pair in probably 95% of cases.

Effect is almost always used as a noun meaning “the result of some action.”

Affect is almost always used as a verb meaning “to influence or bring about change.”

Affect, which is an action (another word for “verb”), starts with an a, like action. There’s your first mnemonic. When something affects something else, it has an effect. The affect or verb happens first and the effect or noun second, just as affect comes first in the alphabet and effect second. There’s your second mnemonic.

My experience with mnemonics tends to be that once I’ve had to use them enough, I internalize the underlying grammar that they help me to remember so that I no longer have to remember the little hint. So the affect/effect distinction comes naturally to me now without the memory tricks, and maybe it will for you too one day, if this is one of those distinctions you struggle with.

This entry wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t complicate things a little. There are of course alternate uses for both words. You can speak of a person’s mood or way of outwardly presenting his mood as his affect (in psychology you’ll hear of a person’s “flat affect”). And you do sometimes hear of someone “effecting change.” These other uses, along with the fact that the two words look and sound similar, are what wind up causing all the confusion. But these are pretty specialized and uncommon uses, and if you remember that affect is almost always an action or verb and effect almost always a noun, you’ll almost always be correct in your usage.

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  1. Thank you Daryl. I really appreciate it when someone takes the time to educate the world regarding grammar and spelling. My latest bugbear is the prolific mis spelling of “you’re”. Arghhh :-) Thanks for the mnemonics which will make it much easier to remember the difference.

  2. My problem with mnemonics is that I always end up creating a counter-version. So now I hope I never have to boost a car, because I can’t remember if it’s “red, red, you’re dead” or “black, black, heart attack” (though I suspect those might actually be the same thing?). Thank goodness for CAA is all I’m saying.

    1. This is definitely a danger! Years ago, before we were married, my wife came up with a mnemonic for remembering my birthday, but it turned out to be a confusing mnemonic that it took her ages to shake.

  3. Good one.
    In some cases Effect need not affect others or things
    If ‘Effect’ of any action impacts the other, one might use Effect”

  4. Daryl, I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your grammar lessons. It’s like having my favorite English teacher back, only younger, way cooler, and male! Your lessons affect change in grammar usage, having good effects upon WP bloggers.

  5. Thanks, especially for the mnemonic. Even my college English professor struggled to provide us with the clear use of effect/affect and ended that query with something like “Affect is used when we are discussing behavior….” Well that’s as clear as the coast during May Gray and June Gloom! And while we’re at it, how about “grey” and “gray”! Eegads.

    1. Both are correct, though gray is American English and grey is global (that is, it will be found in AmE as well). I read that there are a few restricted uses, as in Gray (the radiation measurement), some names (e.g. Earl Grey), and greyhound. I find it useful to remember that greyhounds existed long before the USA, hehe!
      As for mnemonics, you can remember that it is (usually) spelt grAy in America and grEy in England (no offence meant to other British citizens of course!)

      1. Fascinating! When I looked up “grey” it had to do with age and hair, whereas “gray” was when speaking to the color pallet. I like your mnemonic definition much better!
        Thanks!!

  6. I use that mnemonic device too (alphabetical order). I think we should just change most vowels to schwa…

  7. I always remember in a back-to-front way of – ‘affection’ is definitely a noun, therefore ‘affect’ is the base verb of affection so an action; and therefore the “other-one-that-gets-mixed-up-with-it” (ie: effect) is a noun.

  8. Alphabetical rule, maybe. Sound/letter to meaning rule (i.e. Affect is an Action, Effect is the End result), OK as well.
    We could even argue, phonologically speaking, that the initial letter in affect can only be pronounced as a Schwa, while the first one in effect can be either a Schwa or a “soft i” (sorry no symbols here). However, that would not solve the meaning-spelling problem…
    With all due respect, mnemonics aside, is it that hard for relatively educated grown-ups to simply remember two words? I have never seen “bafore” or “bacouse”, for that matter ;)

  9. Even many of my college graduate friends often write or call me to check which is correct. It has always been my pet peeve, and when I see it used wrongly in a book, I correct it!

  10. THANK YOU!!! I was just thinking about this two nights ago – and here you are with my answer! Love the memory hints – I have the same thing for ‘stationery’ and stationary. The first describing office consumables like paper,rulers etc. Also…Envelopes – hence the E in the spelling. The second is describing [a car] being ‘at rest’ or stopped — and there is the A in th spelling. An old boss who had spent years as an editor, journo and then a marketing director gave me that tip – and I’ve used it in my head ever since… even some 18 years later.

    I find your blog really interesting and helpful. I appreciate your effort in writing it!

  11. To be able to deal wit with related adjectives etc., it may be better to understand that it goes by family.
    Affect, affective, affection, affectionate, disaffected etc. have sth. to do with feelings or relationships, including to affect(v) = to afflict with,
    while effect, effective, ineffectual, efficacy are related to cause or bringing sth. about.

    If you know it’s affection, but cause and effect, there you are.

  12. “Effect” versus “affect” has been so confused in recent years that I actually have to stop and think about which word to use when writing. Both of these words have been misused so many times in written material that I’ve unlearned my “automatic” use. Thanks for sharing this difference. I’ll be sharing it with my students.

  13. I also associate these words with body-based actions relating to the arrival of sensory information to the central nervous system (afferent) and the exiting signals to the motor system (musculoskeletal; efferent).

  14. I know a lot of people struggle with discreet/discrete so I made up this mnemonic: in ‘discreet’ the two ‘e’s are huddled together like they’re keeping a secret, but in ‘discrete’ they’re separate.

  15. This is awesome =) I have a whole category in my blog dedicated for that kind of thing =) it’s called “Linguistic Moments” =)

  16. Nice post. I have done this in my lessons as well.
    I just did a lesson on ‘homophones’ …my kids loved it! I gave two (or three) ‘hints’ for the word.
    ex. #1, not here. #2 listen to.
    I did about 45 of these for them, it was actually good practice for their spelling as well!

  17. Finally a definitive answer, albeit with a caveat, and now I see where two of my problems stemmed….in grade school I was incorrectly told (by a teacher sadly) that Effect starts with an “E” and there’s an “E” in verb, and I have battled with that notion and subsequent corrections ever since. Then I read about Grey and Gray and realized I typically opted for the Grey version because my grandparents were fans of greyhounds and I learned that spelling long before I learned the “A” version making me an anomaly among Americans, I guess. I’m feeling so much lighter having lifted these grammatic burdens from my shoulders.

  18. Thanks for the rule of thumb.

    However, there is a noun version of “affect” which probably adds to the confusion. This version, often used in a psychological context, defines it as an emotional reaction to a given event. Example from Webster’s: “Many of these young killers display an absence of what psychiatrists call affect. They show no discernible emotional reaction to what they have done” (Richard Stengel, Time Magazine; Sept. 16, 1985).

    Just saying. :)

  19. Umm… In my experience, when people confuse “affect” and “effect,” they don’t do so because they think incorrectly that affect is a noun and effect is a verb. In fact, if they thought that, they’d of course be correct, as you point out in your final paragraph. Each word can be either a noun or a verb, and that’s what creates the problem (in my experience). Therefore, you really need a quadrant model rather than a simple binary distinction. If you “affect” a change, you alter the way the change is taking place, whereas if you “effect” a change, you cause it to happen. People mess that up all the time. Also, “affect” as a noun means something like emotion (depending on your definition of each term), whereas “effect” as a noun is what we all know as the flip side of a cause.