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’.

Sources:
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.
http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/effect
Grammar Girl: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/affect-versus-effect.aspx
And last, but not least, wikimedia commons for the image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alfred_Hitchcock%27s_Vertigo_trailer_-_Vertigo%27s_Effect.png
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