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”


9 thoughts on “We need not suffer this affective disorder

  1. Great post, Mark! As you know, when a whole lot of people continue to have a problem with a particular area of usage – and the problem lingers like a bad headache – invariably something is going on in the language that’s predisposing them to have this problem. (For instance, the main reason for misuse of “it’s” (rather than “its”) as a possessive is probably that the apostrophe is usually associated with possession (e.g. Mark’s blog). For it NOT to be associated with possession is really weird.

    Back to the troublesome pair: Of course the setup is similar phonology, stress pattern, and nearly identical spelling. One trick that often works is for the writer to master the use of ONE member of a troublesome pair, and then the other member would be understood by default. In this instance understanding would probably have easier entrance via the back door – through the adjective “effective”. To take effective action means to do something you haven’t done before in order to solve a problem. By definition, effective action is new, created action – so now we can backtrack from that to the verb “effect” meaning to create or bring about (something that didn’t exist before). “Affect” (vb) would then be understood by default: The writer would think of it as the “other” verb.

    Of course, this little trick will work only if the writer knows how to spell “effective” in the first place, and doesn’t misspell it as “affective”! Otherwise, the writer is doomed.


  2. Mark, I engaged in a similar exercise years ago as well. The most succinct description I found for using affect and effect is:

    Affect is always a verb. Effect is always a noun. The only time effect will serve as a verb is when you can replace it with the word “accomplish.”

  3. Thank you! This has confused me for years. But thanks to your post, I think I finally get the difference. Now I just have to remember it.

  4. A professional counsellor said to me a while ago: “we have to consider not only the Effect of this on people – what it does to them – but also the Affect – how it makes them feel.” *

    When statements like that enter the language it’s no wonder people get confused.

    * or words to that effect. Within the scope of his own jargon and conversation with his peers, I’ve no doubt that means something and will not be misunderstood; but I still think it’s a retrograde development.

  5. This is great Mark. Thank you so much for the insight on the confusion between “affect” and “effect.” These two terms have always been confusing; however, it is finally starting to make sense.

  6. Can I just say that I skimmed over this yesterday, saved it as a favorite and just tonight went to craft an e-mail and thought, “wait, is it affect or effect?” Ahhh – it still plagues me! So glad I saved this and could reference it. Thank you for enlightening us. To influence or to cause change; got it (for now). Great post!

  7. My students don’t confuse which verb use to choose but whether to choose the noun or the verb. I them them that usually thE Effect comes about becasue something hAs Affected something else. Those two Es don’t always come together, so they may have to ask whether they are discussing thE Effect. But I think it helps some of them.

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