Affect vs Effect – which one is it?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we finally gift wrap one of the biggest grammar gripes around…

Q: Hi AWC, I visited Santa today.
A: At the North Pole?

Q: No, my local shopping centre.
A: Did you sit on his knee?

Q: They’ve actually banned that. Instead, children are put into an adjacent room and Skype Santa from there. They say it’s much safer.
A: Oh, okay then. So, what did you wish for?

Q: It was easy really. I wished for our Q&A segment to finally cover off the difference between “affect” and “effect”.
A: Well, Christmas just came early. Let’s do it.

Q: Seriously? Ah, well I also asked Santa for a wheelbarrow full of doughnuts.
A: Sorry, we’re just doing the first request.

Q: Fine.
A: This is one that SO many people struggle with. Not judging, but it really doesn’t have to be so hard.

Q: Easy for you to say. It doesn’t effect you like it effects us.
A: Okay, both wrong.

Q: So give us the correct definitions.
A: Sure. While there are many other meanings and uses for the words “affect” and “effect”, it’s still their primary definitions that people get wrong. AFFECT is typically a verb – meaning to influence something. Meanwhile, EFFECT is usually a noun – the result of something. And THAT is it.

Q: That’s it?
A: That’s it.

Q: Can you write that with more definitive emphasis please?
A: That. Is. It.

Q: Perfect.
A: If you’re looking for nice ways to remember which is which, consider thinking about A being before E in the alphabet. So you have the action first (“affecting something”) followed by the “effect” or result.

Q: Nice.
A: Another one: the A in “Affect” could also stand for “action” while the E in “Effect” stands for “end (result)” or “event”.

Q: Solid. Let’s see some examples.
A: Sure. “The use of Skype affected the children’s experience of Santa at the shopping centre. The effect was a drop in families visiting the mall.”

Q: Harsh, but fair. Another?
A: “The ice caps melting will affect low lying coastal regions. This will have a profound effect on the global economy.”

Q: Just a box of birds today, aren’t you? So, can “affect” ever be a noun?
A: Hmmm, what do YOU think?

Q: Ahhh, English, the gift that keeps on giving.
A: That’s right. Of course it can be used as a noun. But typically only in psychology or psychiatry to mean an emotion or feeling, usually seen as facial or outward expression. For example, “When shown a picture of Santa, the rescued elf’s affect was sudden and violent.”

Q: Elf slave labour joke – nice. So what about “effect” – we’ve established that that’s usually a noun. But can it also be a verb?
A: Again, yes. And again, in just one instance. This one often stumps people too.

Q: Do go on.
A: Consider this statement: “The politician effected positive change in her electorate by changing the law.”

Q: Ah. Okay, so that's “effect” being used as a verb. Basically synonymous with “caused”.
A: Exactly (as opposed to “affect” which remember is more about influencing than causing). It’s easy to see the difference when it's written, but when that statement is read aloud, it could be heard as “The politician affected positive change in her electorate.”

Q: It sure affects the tone.
A: It certainly does. So, getting it right is important there.

Q: Well thank you for that. It affected my understanding and effectively ended my confusion. I look on these chats affectionately. Anyway, off to the shops again – there’s a sale on quadcopter drones…
A: Say hi to Santa from us!

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