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”