Effect the Affect, Affect the Effect [Thursday Grammar]

What a difference an “a” makes.

After one academic quarter spent as a college English teacher, introducing a lively bunch of undergrads to Chekhov, Gide, and Ian McEwan (a joy!) and grading their papers (often a joy!), I can feel a whole new slew of these grammar posts coming on.

The things I’ve seen done to subject-verb agreement, people. *shudder* I swear, it’s worse than surviving the Hunger Games.

I’m glad that so many of our readers seem to share my enthusiasm for these posts. Though they’re a bit of a departure from pop culture overthinking, I like to think that insufferable pedantry is always in the OTI spirit.

Let’s ease back into this, with a taxonomy of four commonly mistaken words. They are effect, affect, affect, and effect. Allow me to break it down:

  • affect n. emotion
    The serial killer displayed a marked lack of affect.
  • effect n. result
    The effect of prolonged exposure to UV rays may be skin cancer.
  • affect v. to have an effect on
    This news, though shocking, won’t affect my decision.
  • effect v. to bring about, to accomplish
    We hope to effect an improvement.

(Note that affect v. can also mean “pretend” or “put on,” as in, “The stuffy professor from Nebraska affected a British accent.”)

H.W. Fowler, a professor very far from stuffy and Nebraska, whose Modern English Usage sets the standard for (mostly good-natured) usage-related pedantry, elaborates about the verb forms thus:

These verbs are not synonyms requiring differentiation, but words of totally different meaning, neither of which can ever be substituted for the other.

(Tell that to my students, H.W!)

With characteristic concision and wit, Fowler drops the two words into the same sentence as examples: This will not affect (change) his purpose. This will not effect (secure) his purpose.

With affect welling up inside me, I urge you to effect cautions cautious attention to your spelling, the effect of which, I hope, will be to affect the quality of your writing. Whatever you do, don’t sound affected.

11 Comments on “Effect the Affect, Affect the Effect [Thursday Grammar]”

  1. Sam Fryer #

    You may want to proofread that last sentence before criticizing spelling. I know the difference between a typo and lazy spelling, but this is article is way too short to only proof once.


  2. Amanda #

    I now feel like using “cautions attention” as a sort of inside joke, just because it sounds cute somehow :D

    But yeah, a typo every once in a while is fine, but I’m a total grammar nazi (though as a non-native speaker who at the moment watches The Wire way more often than I have the chance to read the NYT, the number of eff ups is increasing exponentially).

    Suggestion to all grammar nazis who might comment on this post: what common spelling/grammar/etc mistake do you hate the most?

    I can’t decide between “all intensive purposes” and people who think “of” is a verb.

    Also, I notice that mistakes like of/’ve are much more common in English than in Portuguese or German (the other languages I speak) because in a lot of English words the vowels barely have a distinctive sound of their own, being mostly just a “bridge” that connects the consonants. Does anyone agree/can think of another example?


  3. Pasteur #

    In Wrather’s defense, it’s not like he writes articles very often. I’m sure he’s just out of practice.


  4. An Inside Joke #

    May I make a request for a future Thursday grammar? I don’t know the answer, but as a person with a career in entertainment, it’s an issue I come across a lot and to which I have yet to find a satisfying answer.

    Is there a form of “whose” for inanimate objects? For example if I was writing about a person, I might write:

    Bob is a person in my class whose influence is far-reaching.

    But if instead of Bob, I wanted to say, talk about the TV show lost, for example, the sentence would be:

    Lost is a show on ABC whose influence is far-reaching.

    I feel uncomfortable using “whose” for inanimate objects, but I’m not sure what word to use in its place. Is it appropriate to use “whose” for things that aren’t people?


    • RichardR OTI Staff #

      Pretty sure in that case it would be “Lost is a show on ABC, the influence of which is far-reaching.”

      Probably, though, for the sake of elegance I’d just make it “Lost is a show on ABC with far-reaching influence.”


      • Isaiah Tanenbaum #

        Misplaced modifier alert: that sentence implies that ABC, rather than Lost, has far-reaching influence.


  5. Genevieve #

    “I like to think that insufferable pedantry is always in the OTI spirit.”

    Hear hear, here!

    Nothing to add to the post, except all the love I have.

    On the question above, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a possessive form of “which,” unless I’m totally missing something. I’d probably say: “Lost is a show that aired on ABC, the influence of which is far-reaching.” (sorry, I felt compelled to add “that aired” to indicate past-tense, since the show isn’t currently still in first-run on ABC (and if you’re talking about reruns you could just as accurately say that it’s a show on Hulu…))

    OR, I’d say: “The influence of Lost, a show that aired on ABC, is far-reaching.” I think that it’s far more acceptable to treat a non-human entity that way; it would be awkward (though accurate) to say “The influence of Bob…”


  6. Richard #

    My personal pet peeve? The use of “loose” (i.e. not tight) when the writer means “lose” (i.e. fail, to not win).

    That is followed closely by the incorrect use and mispelling of Latin phrases, such as “per se”…


  7. Rob #

    Joyful pedantry is fine, but grammar totalitarianism is an attitude up with which we should not put.


  8. Aaron #

    Are you intentionally making mistakes in this post or does this just come from stepping outside the areas of popular culture where you have a lot of knowledge?

    Folwer was not from Nebraska – if you intended the “very far” to cover that, you need to work on your parallel clauses. He was not writing about American English. The standards for what is accepted nowadays have changed in the nearly 90 years since he wrote his book.

    You also cannot effect your own attention. As you note, effect as a verb means to bring something about. In your sentence, you could replace the word “effect” with the word “devote” to show what you really mean. That is not what effect means.

    Being pedantic about details without always getting details right is like Lynn Truss. Best quote about her: “An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces.” http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/06/28/040628crbo_books1


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