Affect and effect are terms that you will hear in relation to creative writing all the time, and they are a bit tricky to get right! Here’s a quick guide to help you make sure you are using them correctly.
A lot of the confusion arises because you can use both of them as nouns and verbs, and they have different meanings when they are in their noun and verb form. A verb is a ‘doing’ or ‘action’ word and a noun is a person, place, or thing.
So I think it’s fair to say that there might actually be four words or meanings in play here … possibly many, many more. But this article is about simplifying, so we will focus on the most common uses.
I should also point out that words have unlimited meanings … in France there is a council of people who decide exactly what each French word means. But that isn’t how English works.
English dictionaries scan through documents to see how words have been used historically. If you can find an example of a word being used to mean a certain thing, and that source has enough credibility or authority, chances are that’s a legitimate meaning for that word.
So let’s get back to affect versus effect. There is no denying that the difference between these words can be tricky to master, and the only way to do it is to learn the difference, and then regularly practice until you feel it comes naturally.
The most common usage of this term is as a verb which means ‘have an effect on; make a difference to’. For example, ‘The earthquake affected the residents of the town.’
A second very common meaning which is related to the first one is to describe something as ‘affecting’, which can mean ‘has a powerful emotional impact.’ For instance, ‘The play was deeply affecting.’ i.e. it has affected your emotions, or had an impact on your emotions.
A third common meaning of affect as a verb is ‘to pretend to have to feel something.’ For instance ‘I affected a British accent.’ i.e. ‘I pretended to have a British accent.’
This meaning can also be used as a noun with ‘affectation’. For instance, ‘His British accent is an affectation.’ Which means ‘His British accent is affected’, or ‘His British accent is pretend.’
Effect as a noun usually means ‘a change which is a result or consequence of an action or other cause.’ For example, ‘The collapse of the building was an effect of the earthquake.’
Another common usage is ‘the lighting, sound, or scenery used in a play, film, or broadcast.’ Such as ‘special effects.’ But this is slightly misleading, because this usage can apply not just to the performance world. For instance, ‘when the bomb exploded it created a spectacular effect.’ Or ‘The effect of the explosion was small or underwhelming.’
Another common usage is effect as a verb, ‘cause (something) to happen; bring about.’ i.e. ‘She effected her plan to speak.’ or ‘the politician effected many laws.’
If you keep revisiting these meanings, and practice using them, and asking others who understand the difference between these words for feedback, you will be confidently using them in no time!
If you are not totally confident about which one to use in a sentence, don’t risk it! Just use a different word. This rule applies for everything you write. Just find a word and phrase you feel comfortable with, and avoid embarrassing yourself.
The best users of words can usually be found with a dictionary in hand. Don’t get fooled into thinking you have to know everything off the top of your head. Smart people look things up.
‘Smart people’ are arguably just better lookers-uppers than other people 🙂