Substance abuse


Sometimes the meanings of two words are very close and it’s easy to confuse them. Two such words are ‘substantial’ and ‘substantive’.

According to Macquarie (Australia’s dictionary), the meanings are:

substantial: real or actual, of ample amount, of solid character, of real worth, having to do with substance, having to do with the essence of a thing.

substantive: having independent existence, belonging to the real or essential part of a thing, essential, real or actual, of considerable amount or quantity.

Obviously they’re very close in meaning. Sometimes Macquarie includes usage notes about words that might be easily confused, such as in the entry for ‘effect’, where the usage note says ‘not to be confused with affect’, but it does not for these two.

Searching a little broader (read: trawling the great google) was a little more useful. In fact, given the ease with which the internet erupts in apoplexy about infinitesimally subtle shades of meaning, it’s eerily quiet out there on this topic. (I have, however, learned from the interwebz that ‘Substantial’ is the name of a Maryland rapper. Yes, that’s him in the pic.) That tells me that either most people have a feel for it and get it right, or that most people don’t know the difference between them and so don’t know when they’ve been used incorrectly, or that the meanings are so close that to a large extent they are interchangeable. It seems from Macquarie (and from what you’ll see below) that it’s mostly this last reason.

Many lists aim to educate people about easily confused words, and these two do not appear on the most common ones:

Even Grammar Girl didn’t have an entry about this.

But the formal sources do: Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the Australian English Style Guide (Peters).

Fowler’s has a couple of paragraphs on it: both words mean ‘of substance’, but they have become differentiated to the extent that ‘-ial’ is now the word in general use for real, of real importance, sizeable, solid, well-to-do, etc, and ‘-ive’, is chiefly used in special senses: in grammar, in parliamentary proceedings, in law, in the services. This is in the 2004 edition, by the way; the difference between ‘substantial’ and ‘substantive’ was not mentioned at all in the 1926 edition.

Peters also discusses this issue, saying that the two can appear in the same context but have a different focus. ‘Substantial’ is the more common of the two, by a factor of 14:1 and has more of a physical meaning, being about size or proportion. (This difference is usage would be explained by the narrower uses for ‘substantive’ given in Fowler’s above.) ‘Substantive’ is more abstract, and is to do with there being real issues. If a document is long and important in its content then it will be substantial and substantive; but a reader will prefer to get the substantive component without having to wade through substantial pages for it!

So ‘substantial’ has more to do with the amount of a change, and ‘substantive’ to do with affecting the substance itself. You might say that reducing a document by 20% through (for example, the paramedic method) was substantial but not substantive if the content was essentially the same, but that the document had undergone a substantive change if three new chapters were introduced while keeping the length the same by reducing the size of other chapters.

As to a memory device for this? I suggest the near rhymes of “a substantial meal is plentiful;a substantive argument is illustrative” could help. Now, put that into a rap.

Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Image from:

Special effects affect me

Many people have trouble remembering when to use ‘affect’ and when to use ‘effect’. The basic rule is that ‘affect’ is a verb, and ‘effect’ is a noun (except for some less common usage, which is described later).

Affect – verb: to influence           Cold weather affects me.

(‘Affect’ as a verb is also used sometimes to mean ‘to put airs on’ – ‘She affected a sophisticated pose with her little finger.’ – Fowler’s says that this usage is of quite different origins to the more usual meaning of ‘to influence’.)

Effect – noun: the thing that causes some change    One cold weather effect is a numb nose.

There are a number of memory devices you can use for this one – the one that seems to have stuck in my head is to use the opposite of the obvious word trick: there is an ‘e’ in verb, so that should go with ‘effect’ but it doesn’t (because they’re opposite), so the verb is affect. This is somewhat laboured and possibly not very intuitive, but it has worked for me all these years.

Another way is to remember some example sentences, like the title of this post. You would know that in basic English sentences the word order is ‘something does something to something’. This is called subject, verb, object word order and it means that basic sentences have the structure of noun/verb/noun. Don’t worry if all that grammar terminology is meaningless; have a look at the table below:

Subject (noun or noun phrase) Verb (verb or verb phrase) Object (noun or noun phrase)
The boy kicked the ball.
Mary wrote a letter.
The brilliant Mets won the game.
Special effects saved the film.
Happy people influence everyone.
Happy people affect me.
Special effects affect me.
Cold weather affects me.
One cold weather effect is a numb nose.

So the special ‘effects’ (noun) have some influence, or ‘affect’ (verb) on people. Remember also that nouns are words that take plurals, so you’re often going to see ‘effects’ (more than one effect). Verbs are words that show tense and how many people are taking the action, so you’ll see ‘affected/affecting’ and ‘affects’ (I affect them; it affects me).

This is the most common use of these words. But in formal use they can occur as the opposite part of speech – and this complicates things and confuses people.

‘Effect’ can be a verb meaning ‘to bring about’: ‘The aim of the government policy on ice-cream is to effect change in eating habits of summer-stressed Australians.’ This one is usually used with the word ‘change’, but not necessarily. For example, you could say:

‘The medicine will effect her recovery’ (i.e. bring about her recovery)

which is different from:

‘The medicine will affect her recovery’ (have some influence on, but for better or worse is not known).

And ‘affect’ can be a noun used in psychology to describe a mood or how a person presents: ‘She arrived with a happy affect.’ This is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable (AFF-ect) as opposed to the pronunciation of the verb (aff-ECT).

Effect as a noun occurs 10–15 more times than effect as a verb, so there’s a good chance that’s the one you want. And affect as a noun occurs now only in psychology.

What about idioms? Some common expressions make use of ‘effect’: my personal effects; to take good effect; the after effect; the butterfly effect; in effect; something to that effect; snowball effect … these are all nouns, and all of them are ‘effect’ with an ‘e’.

Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Grammar Girl:
And last, but not least, wikimedia commons for the image: