Affective writing can have a powerful effect. And effective writing can have a powerful affect. And the truth be told, effective writing can have a powerful effect. But these three sentences all mean entirely different things because effect and affect are not the same. Accidentally choose one when you mean the other and you’ll have the wrong affect on your reader.
Oops! Did you catch that? I should have written “wrong effect on your reader.” That’s our topic of discussion today: the difference between affect and effect. As with many homonyms, getting them confused is a common writers’ mistake.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Affect means, “to produce an effect upon: as
a : to produce a material influence upon or alteration in <paralysis affected his limbs>
b : to act upon (as a person or a person’s mind or feelings) so as to produce a response,”
Effect means, “a change that results when something is done or happens : an event, condition, or state of affairs that is produced by a cause.”
Basically, the key to remembering the distinction is that, MOST of the time, ‘affect’ is an action. Get that? ‘A’ for ‘action’ and A for ‘affect’—pretty clever, no? Meanwhile ‘effect’ is a result, or a noun.
So let's take another look at the typo in the first paragraph. What was wrong? Was I referring to an action that the reader took as a result of what was written? No. I was referring to a result, an occurrence that took place because the reader had already been affected by the poor diction.
Let’s look at some other examples:
“That is the Desired Effect, and if we start with Screwjack it won’t happen [sic].”
-Hunter S. Thompson, Screwjack
“There are, of course, situations where people have character strength but they lack communication skills, and that undoubtedly affects the quality of relationships as well.”
-Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
In Thompson’s example, he is describing the feeling and interpretation of his work—the result—that he wants his reader to walk away with. Covey is describing how people’s strengths and weakness take action on relationships, for better or worse. As you can see, Covey is using affect to draw the reader’s attention to the actions, whereas Thompson is using effect to draw the reader’s attention to what he wants the result to be at the end of his action of writing.
So affect is the verb and effect is the noun, right? Well . . . USUALLY, but not always. That’s what makes this tricky. It turns out that effect can be a verb, meaning “to bring about.” For instance, I could say “Effective writing can effect a powerful effect.” Of course, I wouldn’t—that would be too confusing!
If we’re going to tell the whole story, it’s also true that affect can sometimes be a noun—meaning “an emotion, particularly as manifested bodily.” This is, though, a much less common use of the word.
So let’s go back to my opening sentences:
“Affective writing can have a powerful effect.” That means: “Writing that expresses emotion can bring about powerful results.” Here, “effect” is used in its usual way—as a noun, meaning “result.”
“Effective writing can have a powerful affect.” This means: “Writing that has its intended result can influence powerful emotions.” I’ll admit that’s true, but a bit awkward!
“Effective writing can have a powerful effect.” While grammatically correct, this means very little, since it’s a tautology: “Writing that has its intended results can powerfully bring about results.” Duh.
Still confused? If you stick to the most common uses, you can’t go wrong. Remember ’A’ for ‘action,’ and use affect as a verb, meaning “to produce an effect”; and then use effect as the result it produces—a noun.
And if you don’t remember that, then remember this: The website for the Merriam-Webster dictionary is www.m-w.com!