Commonly Confused

'Affect' vs. 'Effect'

How to pick the right one

What to Know

Affect is most commonly found as a verb meaning "to produce an effect upon," while effect is in most cases used as a noun meaning "a change that results when something is done or happens." When used as a verb, effect means "to cause to come into being" or "accomplish." As a noun, affect refers to the observable expressions of an experienced emotion.

It has often been said that nothing in life is certain but death and taxes, but to this unpleasant duo we may add a third certainty: telling the difference between affect and effect will eat up some considerable portion of your life.

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The confusion springs from the fact that these two words look and sound quite similar, each can function as both a verb and noun, and their use can be pretty ambiguous (for instance, both 'the affect was unpleasant' or 'the effect was unpleasant' could be correct, depending on context). Well nigh every usage guide from the past hundred years has contained an explanation for how to distinguish between these words, yet they continue to haunt the English-speaking populace. We have an unconventional mnemonic that may help; it involves basketball legend Darryl Dawkins, interplanetary funksmanship (you’ll see), and good old-fashioned studying.

Darryl Dawkins, electrifying center of the Philadelphia 76ers, who recently transformed into the "Bionic Man" having electrodes taped to his injured shoulder, reporting on the results: "It affected my interplanetary funksmanship."
Jet, 2 Feb. 1978

’Affect’ and ‘Effect’ as Verbs

Affect, when employed as a verb, most commonly carries the meaning of "to act on or change someone or something." The use of effect as a verb is not as common as that of affect, and it generally has the meaning of "to cause to come into being" or "accomplish."

As Los Angeles started its 25-9 blitz to open the second half (a typical Laker trend in these playoffs), Jabbar blocked five shots, effected a fourth foul on Dawkins in just two minutes and ignited the hosts' best stretch of running, scrambling ball.
The Washington Post, 5 May 1980

’Effect’ as a Noun

Although affect may be more common as a verb, the use of effect as a noun far outstrips that of affect. An effect is "a change that results when something is done or happens," or "a particular feeling or mood created by something."

But suppose it hadn't worked out. Suppose young Darryl Dawkins had washed out, as Willoughby did. What then? "I would have been a love doctor," he says, pausing for effect. "Really, I think I would've been a communications major. I had always wanted to own and operate a radio station."
Philadelphia Daily News, 6 Jun. 2005

In effect is also frequently used, and has the meaning of "in substance" or "in operation."

Q: Is Chocolate Thunder still in effect?
Dawkins: Chocolate Thunder is still in effect. I'm still funking for Jamaica and enjoying life.
Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, 24 Feb. 2002

’Affect’ as a Noun

Rounding out our quadrant of confusion, remember that affect is also a noun (although its use is primarily found in psychology), meaning "a set of observable manifestations of an experienced emotion : the facial expressions, gestures, postures, vocal intonations, etc., that typically accompany an emotion."

A patient of mine uses this lack of affect entirely for purposes of resistance.
— Otto Fenichel, The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, Vol. 1, 1953

How to Remember

You may, in future moment of indecision, try to remember that if you are using a verb you are more likely going to want affect, and if you want a noun it is probably going to be effect. Or you may simply think of Mr. Dawkins and commit to memory "Chocolate Thunder is still in effect" (noun) and "this affected my interplanetary funksmanship" (verb).

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