Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 120: Little-Known Side Effects

This week on Grammar Grater, we're looking a bit deeper into the difference between affect and effect. Our episode is inspired by an e-mail we received from Bobby, a listener in Brooklyn, New York. Bobby writes:

What is the proper distinction between effect and affect? I've heard that the difference is between whether something is caused or influenced, but that is a rather fuzzy division. Are there any tips to keep in mind?

Thanks for the message, Bobby. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, affect is a verb meaning make a difference to or influence, and it's used like this:

Road construction will affect the bus route.
Changes to the bus route will affect daily commuters.

The Oxford Dictionary of Current English informs us that effect is a noun meaning a result. Here are examples:

Many commuters believe the road construction has had a negative effect on the bus system.
Being late to work is one of the effects road construction has had on bus commuters.

Those tend to be the most common uses of affect and effect, but it's not the whole story.

There's another verb meaning of affect, and it means to assume a character, to pretend to have or to feel. For example:

George Clooney affected the appropriate accent in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? to make audiences believe his character is from the Deep South.

What's more, the word affect can also be a noun. The good news is that according to Fowler's Modern English Usage, affect as a noun has a limited use; specifically, it is only a technical term in the field of psychology. In its noun form, affect is pronounced with the emphasis clearly on the first syllable, and it means an emotion, a feeling or a desire, especially as leading to action.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary assures us, "Except when your topic is psychology, you will seldom need the noun affect."

Slightly more complicated—and more common—is the verb form of the word effect. According to Fowler's Modern English Usage, effect can be a verb that means bring about, cause, produce, result in, have as result, accomplish, or secure.

Here's effect being used in this way:

A prescription of antibiotics will effect the patient's recovery. (effect as in "bring about")
Many artistic films are released towards the end of the year so that they may effect Oscar nominations. (effect as in "secure")

Gordon Jarvie, in the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, sums it up this way.

The noun effect means result. For example: What's the effect of putting acid on wood?

The verb effect means make. For example, He effected his getaway under cover of darkness.

The verb affect means influence or make a difference to, For example, His death badly affected us all.
The verb affect can also mean to act or to pretend. For example, He affected a lisping accent.

The oft-quoted rule that affect is a verb and effect is a noun can be helpful in most situations—but like most rules in English, there are exceptions and variations to bear in mind.

Music from this episode: "Effect and Cause" by the White Stripes, "We're Gonna Rock" by Memphis Slim

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Note: links to 11th edition); Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield; Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie

MPR News

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland