We need not suffer this affective disorder

After seeing “affect” used improperly several times in succession years ago, I photocopied the “AP Stylebook” entry, cut it out, copied it at 200 percent, then doubled its size again, knowingly contributing to deforestation and exacerbating profit declines for the Newhouse family.

Unfortunately, the small act of posting the enlarged affect/effect entry on my desk divider failed to put the issue to a rest. At some point AP updated its entry. It’s now less succinct, but it’s still a good guide. There are many good explanations out there of the correct usage (see a few below), but affect/effect mixups remain a common usage annoyance.

A copy editor friend recently suggested I blog about it. His suggestion came on the heels of another copy editor’s call for help after her brain seized up on the matter.

I did tackle affect/effect in exactly 140 characters one day in a Twitter entry:

“Don’t fear ‘effect’ as a verb. To ‘affect’ is to influence; to ‘effect’ is to bring about. ‘Effect’ something and you can take the credit.”

That, too, failed to put the issue to rest.

To use my copy editor friend’s example, let’s delve into the differences using two nouns, “catnip” and “cats.” Catnip is our subject of our examples; cats are the objects that the verb refers to. Both affect and effect can be verbs, so:

  • Catnip affects cats.
  • Catnip effects cats.

Affect means “to influence.” “Catnip influences cats.” It certainly does. The verb form is usually “affect.” Use it whenever something is taking an action on something that already exists.

Effect means to bring about, to cause. “Catnip causes cats.” Clearly that does not make sense. To “effect” a cat, one must create a cat. To be precise, a daddy cat and a mommy cat fall in love, etc. Their mating effects a litter of kittens.

Very often, we see the verb “effect” used with “change.” To “effect change” means to make change happen. If you “affect change,” you are having an influence on the change, but there would be some form of change with or without you.

As a noun, “effect” is the result of the action. Catnip affects cats with the effect that they act squirrelly.

“Affect” has another verb form, meaning basically “pretend.” “He affected the air of an Oxford don as he explained the usage issue.” The noun is “affectation.” Psychologists also use “affect” to mean an observed emotional state, as in “seasonal affective disorder.”

If this last paragraph adds confusion, ignore it. Those are not common uses. In fact, forget the noun issue altogether. You instinctively know that if it’s a noun, the word is “effect.” The headache comes with the verb form. So, all you need to remember is:

If the object of the sentence is being changed, the verb is affect.

If the object of the sentence is being created, the verb is effect.

Or, more succinctly: Affect is to change; effect is to create.

I hope this blog entry effectively puts the issue to rest. But if you need reinforcement, here are some other sources that address the issue:

Paul Brians’ “Common Errors in English Usage”

Grammar Girl’s “Quick and Dirty Tips

Professor Malcolm Gibson’s “Wonderful World of Editing

Ask Oxford

Wordnik (American Heritage usage note)

Stan Carey’s “Sentence First”

With Twitter, it’s like I never left

This is the bonus extended edition of a column I wrote for the most recent newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society. To learn about ACES and the upcoming conference in Philadelphia, go to http://www.copydesk.org.

There are several reasons I enjoyed going to work every day at a newspaper and felt good after the job was done. Making a difference, of course, was number one. Second was all the one-liners.

It is difficult for we previously employed, sized-down, made-redundant masses of journalists — we no longer are privy to the clever wordplay and mildly inappropriate humor that permeate newsrooms. This witty repartee reaches its fullness on copy desks, especially around 10 p.m. when most anything sounds funny.

But I miss that interplay less than I had feared. I have discovered that Twitter is the new office. It’s not the part of the office that gets things done, necessarily. But there is some of that, too.

In April, my employer of four years invited me to proceed in life without what former ACES president John McIntyre, late of the Baltimore Sun, calls “the surly bonds of employment.” I have been free of those bonds for eight months, and I may never go back.

I may never go back partly because it is unclear what I might go back to. Our ranks have been thinned considerably, with every indication that we are seeing a permanent realignment of newsrooms. There is no guarantee that there would be a recognizable desk to return to.

Beyond that, there is a feeling that I have done my time. I did good for more than a quarter century, stretching back to the Eppler Express junior high school newspaper. (“Eppler’s seven cheerleaders say cheerleading is hard work, but also a lot of fun.” I still remember my first lead on that double-bylined story.)

So now it’s time to move on. I’m not convinced the populace will get along without me. But perhaps I can find some new ways to make myself useful. For my first step, I successfully took over my wife’s office in the guest bedroom.

My “How to Be Laid Off” class taught me that many people who decide to work on their own find they miss the human interaction of a “real job.” But soon I found Twitter, which can be just as distracting as anybody I’ve ever worked with.

Twitter keeps me in touch with like-minded people around the world and in a newsroom near you. It seems perfectly suited to copy editor types, who are comfortable with the brevity imposed by Twitter’s 140-character limit and are never wont to go on about a topic anyway.

The personalities in the Twitterverse are as varied as those at the workstations of the copy desk. It is inhabited by some of those non-newsroom copy editors I’ve only recently been made aware existed. It’s great to go to work every day with freelancers, word lovers, new-media pontificators and some folks who are just plain good for a laugh. And, of course, it’s great to keep in touch with the newsrooms where, it’s heartening to know, there are professionals who still go to battle every day.

When I first signed up for Twitter, a friend told me she tries to follow a number of new people every day. I had assumed Twitter was all about getting people to follow you. But I discovered that, ego aside, Twitter’s strength is not about how many followers you accumulate, it’s about whom you follow. It is a marketing and networking tool for a freelancer, but it’s mainly a useful place to learn and connect. I follow people who might want to hire an editor, and I follow other journalists, work-at-home editors, educators, old friends, new friends, and just about anyone who is kind enough to follow me (except that Brit.ney person who keeps sending me links to her new pictures).

So now my office is filled with chatter, including banter similar to that found on newspaper copy desks — sometimes from people I worked with 10 and 20 years ago. I hear from frustrated editors sharing convoluted constructions and moaning about metro. I hear a lot about people’s children, although I’m never asked to buy wrapping paper for the marching band. One copy editor shares his front-page lineup and tweets about his bicycle ride into work. Another, a freelancer, recently donated a kidney and has been keeping her Twitter friends updated. I hear from industry veterans and newcomers and journalism school professors all wondering where newspapers are headed. And I hear from plenty of people who are wondering “is it that or which,” “when should you use presently,” and, my favorite, “can fish jump?”

It’s always good to feel useful.

Mark Allen is working as a freelance copy editor from his guest bedroom in Bexley, Ohio. He last worked for a daily newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, in the spring after spending the better part of his career at Michigan dailies. He offers daily tips on grammar, usage and style on Twitter under the name EditorMark. He will periodically be writing about the transition from the newsroom to freelancing for the ACES newsletter.

Math expressions are words, too

Writers often will say they are word people and not math people. And this defeatist pronouncement too often is reflected in their use of simple math. But mathematical expressions are words. They have specific meanings, commonly understood but often ignored in practice.

Most of us have the basic knowledge that allows to check to make sure the mathematical expressions we use hold true in context. If something is “twice as much” as something else, then half of that something also is something else. Right? If I have three apples and you have twice as many, you have six apples. If you give me half your apples and end up with four, we’ve screwed something up.

Don’t ignore the common-sense advice drilled into our heads in high school: Check your work.

This morning’s paper brought a story with more complex math than an exchange of apples, but nothing any of us can’t do in our heads. No calculator was used in the preparation of this blog.

The state of Ohio is capping the amount that insurance providers can charge people who are considered high-risk, such as those with diabetes or other medical conditions. The cost of high-risk plans are limited to twice the cost of the lowest-cost plan for people of the same sex and similar age. Some companies, the story tells us, charged four times the lowest rate, and some people paid $1,000 a month.

Fine so far. But the story also says “The cap is expected to reduce premiums by 50 percent to 70 percent.”

Now, let’s check the math. Starting with that poor fellow paying $1,000 a month, his fee is up to four times the base rate if we use the extremes. So the base rate is no more than $250, and reducing his fee to twice the base rate would have him paying $500 a month.

That assumes no increase in the base rate – a silly assumption perhaps, but we are solving for the extreme here. So, best case scenario, the $1,000-a-month fee is reduced to $500. We don’t need a calculator to know that $500 is 50 percent of $1,000.

Stated more simply, If we reduce something from four times as much to twice as much, we have reduced it 50 percent. No more. Change any of the assumptions, and the savings are less. Nothing we do will get us to 70 percent.

There is one other variable, but it requires that we assume a mistake in the story. The cap gradually decreases and reaches 1½ times the lowest-price premium in 2013. Assuming no change in the lowest-price premium, our $1,000 would be reduced to $375, a reduction of 62.5 percent. That’s short of 70 percent and still represents the best-case scenario. And the story never said those savings would come in 2013 instead of 2010.

Perhaps there is something more in the legislation that will increase savings, making all the assumptions and the quoted 50 percent to 70 percent savings correct. But based on what we’re given, the best anyone can hope for is 50 percent, and most consumers should expect less.

When we see expressions such as “twice as much” and “50 percent of,” we should pull the numbers out of our story and make sure they work together. Surprisingly often, they end up disagreeing.