Monday, May 14, 2012

Writing 101: Affect and Effect

It happens to the best of us, and no matter how we try to avoid them they still have a way of sneaking up on us. They're called homonyms, and they are the scourge of the English language. But if you think you can get through an entire book without getting wrapped up in them, you're wrong. Today, we're going to discuss a dastardly pair that's sure to strike even the most brilliant grammarians: affect and effect. Yes, they are evil. But don't worry; I know how to defeat them.

Affect vs. Effect

If you use the word effect improperly, it's definitely going to affect your work. To be honest, there are plenty of readers who plain won't notice the difference...but there are those who will. In the interest of perfection (isn't that what we're all chasing?), it's important to know exactly why affect and effect are totally different words, even though only one vowel separates them.

I'm willing to come clean: I still have to look up the difference between these two words all the time. It's easy to forget why they're different, and to put the wrong one in place of the other. But I stop, and I go look them up anytime I feel even a little unsure of myself -- and sometimes even when I don't. Once you get on a writing roll, it's really hard to stop suddenly to pull out the dictionary. It can totally take you out of the zone and disrupt your flow.

The thing is, your readers are going to feel the same way if they suddenly stumble across the wrong word. So always take the time to stop, look it up, and double-check your words.

Affect describes something that is happening to something else. Her judgment was newly affected by his most recent betrayal. The affect is happening to her judgement.

Effect, on the other hand, describes a result. His most recent betrayal had a negative effect on her judgment. 

Affect may also be used in a slightly different way. Have you heard of someone affecting an accent? It's a fancy way of saying they're faking it. Someone may use an affectation to convey something about themselves, usually false. In this usage of the word, they're trying to affect others by giving them some sort of impression. 

It gets confusing, because the meaning of the words are similar. Try remembrance tricks to help you distinguish between the two of them. For example, I like to remember sound effects scare squirrels. It's a funny little phrase. Flip it around, and you get the other meaning of the words. Scared squirrels affect sound. The first phrase means, basically, loud noises are frightening to those nut-loving rodents. The second phrase means they make a noise when they're frightened.

Or if you something a little simpler, try substituting the two words for their meanings. When you see affect, replace it with happens to (or happened to, as the case may be) and see if the sentence still makes since. Replace effect with result or results. If you feel like you're reading gibberish, maybe you're using one for the other where you shouldn't be. 

Find your own way to remember the difference between affect and effect, or keep a grammar cheat sheet handy. Even great writers can get confused and hung up on words like this terrible, warring pair, so if you find yourself looking it up frequently don't think it's a reflection on your writing skills -- if anything, it's a reflection that you're a hard worker who cares about what you're writing. Looking up the meanings and figuring out the homonyms is never, ever a waste of time.

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