Oh boy, it’s time for another “homophone” lesson, this time regarding the never-ending battle between “effect” and “affect.” I would have saved this, if I hadn’t noticed (Horrors! In the Christian Science Monitor?) the following sentence, regarding tropical-storm-now-Hurricane Isaac and its possible positive side-effects:

“It could also add needed water to the river systems that drain into the Mississippi. And by adding moisture to the air, the storm may also set the stage for more rain in the future in some drought-effected areas.” 

Quickly now, where is the error here? Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .

Time’s up, although you should know just from the topic of today’s blog: it should read “drought-affected areas” . . . as in “areas affected by drought.” (A small case might be made that this was an attempt by the journalist or typesetter to call those areas “drought-effected” because they were in a sense “created or produced by the effects of the drought” . . . I’m not buyin’ it!)

Okay, then let’s explore why this is all so wrong. Part of the confusion comes about because both effect and affect may be used as either a noun or a verb:

  • You might have a positive (or negative) effect on something (noun), or you may effect an outcome (verb, but you could also say “produce” one, which is a much clearer way of saying the same thing).
  • You may also have a peculiar affect (noun), as in a funny mannerism or walking style, while how you behave in public may definitely affect (verb) the response of others. (The noun here is more often used to refer to an “affectation,” which clarifies it a bit as well.)

The rule of thumb: More often than not (maybe 95% of the time?), “affect” is used as a verb, while “effect” is more commonly a noun. Generally speaking, you can rarely go wrong using them both that way.

The definitions may help a little to clarify this:

effect: (noun) (1) Something brought about; a result. (For example, “The committee debated the effect this bill would have on teenagers.” OR “It was a simple case of cause and effect.”); (2) The way one thing acts upon another. (Example: “The primary effect of this law has been increased alcohol use outside of bars.”)

(verb) To produce a result; to cause something to occur; to bring about an outcome. (Example: “The cutbacks were intended to effect day-by-day economizing for the company.” As noted above, this is just a bizspeak way of saying “produce” or “result in” such measures; skip the jargon and avoid the problem.)

affect: (verb) To have an influence on; to impress or to move; to produce a change in something or someone. (Example:  “He tried to show how lack of sleep affected his awareness late in the day.”)

(noun) (1) In acting, a personality-quirk or mannerism, designed to augment an actor’s presentation of a character (Example: When actors play Richard III, they often limp, showing the affect of this “broken old man.”); (2) In psychological diagnosis, an emotional state, as contrasted to a cognition. (This is very obscure and rarely if ever used outside of the shrink’s notepad or files.)

Are you totally confused yet? Then just remember this: “cause and effect” contains two nouns, one ending in e and the other beginning with one. Meanwhile, “affect” (with an “a”) is almost always going to be a verb.

‘Til next time . . .

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