Getting “affect” and “effect” out of the way

I once had a part-time gig taking dictation for a lawyer who prided himself on his spelling and had no faith in anyone else’s. When he spoke into his dictaphone, he made sure to overenunciate commonly confused words – aaah-ffect, eeee-ffect, princi-paaaal, compleh-ment, and so on – to make sure I didn’t misspell them. I felt mildly offended when typing up his words, because his verbal spoonfeeding robbed me of the opportunity to prove that I didn’t belong to the grammatical underclass he so derided.

Now that I have my own blog, I can finally show him! And do my part to end the confusion. Herewith, my attempt to demystify the most common homophone mixup I encounter in print (alas, even in books and magazines published by “real” publishers) and in the blogosphere: effect vs. affect.

  • Affect, the verb: to change, to influence
  • Effect, the verb: to yield, to produce (a good mnemonic to distinguish the two: to affect is to effect a change)
  • Affect, the noun (with the first syllable accented): disposition, mien
  • Effect, the noun: consequence, ramification

Even editors don’t get it right, in my experience. Not long ago, an editor sent me an email requesting that I add points x, y and z to the draft copy of my magazine article without “effecting its length.” By which she clearly meant: “Without affecting the amount we have to pay you.” I kept mum on both counts – the grammatical transgression and contractual sleight of hand – but really, there should be laws against such things.

As Lynne Truss said about the apostrophe: it’s not rocket science, people! If we can insert human genes into mouse chromosomes, communicate through the air waves, and store all of Kim Kardashian’s bikini shots on a chip the size of a single-celled organism, can we not manage to get these four words straight? Surely there’s an app for that.

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