The English language is loaded with words that look and sound alike, but have totally different meanings. These words are called “homophones”, having almost the same pronunciation but a unique spelling and meaning in practice.
Homophones are more common than you may think. Which vs. witch, than vs. then, and the extra-confusing trio of their, there, and they’re.
We’re not here to explore all the homophones in the dictionary, but rather to focus on one pair of words that gets mixed up even by long-time readers and writers: affect vs. effect.
These two words only have a one-letter difference, but have a range of unique meanings that make the situation even foggier when communicating in English at any level.
Let’s get to the bottom of the affect vs. effect debate and figure out how to stop mixing up these two words once and for all.
Definitions of Affect
The best way to remember the definition of affect is to relate it to “action” or “impact”. As a verb, this makes sense right off the bat.
When building a sentence, we use affect to show that something has been changed, altered, or impacted in some way by another person or object.
For example, we might say that the conditions of the road might affect the way we drive, or the long line at a cafe affected our choice to go somewhere else for coffee.
Although we usually use affect to describe the influence of one object unto another, it can also mean “to pretend” or “put on a face” in a more old-fashioned sense.
In this alternate definition, you might say that a businessman or politician affected a pleasant tone, despite having bad intentions. This use case is less common, but still something to watch for in literature.
Try to make up a few sentences from scratch to apply the proper use of affect in a way that makes sense to you.
Definitions of Effect
The key to understanding the definition of “effect” is to think of the outcome after a scenario or action unfolds. Just think of the phrase “cause and effect” to give yourself a quick reminder of how this word is supposed to work.
All actions have outcomes and effects, good or bad, intentional or not. The effects of diet and exercise can be weight loss and longevity, while the effect of too many potato chips could be a stomachache.
“Effect” is a noun, and is seen all over the English language, even more than “affect”. However, it does also have a rarely used verb form that is similar to “affect”, specifically to put something into action or make it official.
For instance, legislators may “effect changes to a law”, which will have consequences for citizens. This is more of a legal or technical term in most cases, and probably won’t appear too often in your reading and writing.
Don’t worry about the off-chance of a weird, old-timey usage for these words. Get them figured out and use them properly in a modern way that everyone understands.
Common Affect/Effect Mix-Ups
Learning a language – or perfecting one you already know – is all about making mistakes and learning from them. With that said, you’ll likely mix up affect and effect from time to time, but it’s worth the short-term frustration to learn a long-term lesson.
The most common way that people mix these two words up is by putting “effect” where “affect” should be. For example, you might accidentally write that “the weather effected the harvest” when you should have written: “the weather affected the harvest”.
Less commonly, people will make the opposite switch, putting “affect” in place of “effect”. However, this can still happen to beginners or if you’re dealing in past or future tenses.
Don’t worry about making mistakes when you’re working out the right way to use these words. Just keep making progress and take note of these words when you see them in articles, books, and so on.
A quick word of warning here: even professional writers sometimes make mistakes like mixing up affect and effect! We see corrections made to publications like magazines and newspapers all the time, so ultimately, you’ll need to know these rules by heart and be the final authority.
Tips to Stop Mixing Up Affect and Effect
Reviewing definitions and gaining experience can help us learn differences between homophones like affect and effect early on, but eventually we’ll have to just commit these rules to memory.
Luckily, there is one foolproof way to remember these terms and their meanings, with an easy method using the first letters of each word.
Just remember that “A is for action”, representing “affect”. On the other hand “E is for the end result”, which stands for “effect”. With this rule in your back pocket, you’ll always have the right word for the situation at hand.
If you don’t write often for work or personal interest, it can be hard to distinguish between words like this, so consider taking up a writing practice to sharpen your skills. Just journaling a few hundred words a day can make you more articulate, more mentally organized, and a better communicator in all areas of your life.
Practice makes perfect as they say. Give it time, and you’ll no longer have to worry about making this common mistake, giving you a new level of confidence with the pen and keyboard.
Never Mix Up Affect and Effect Again
When it comes to mastering language in written form, we all face different challenges.
Some of us struggle to expand our vocab, while others can’t seem to get a grip on grammar. The good news is that sorting out homophones like affect and effect is one of the more straightforward tasks that can be tackled with just a bit of practice.
You won’t be avoiding these two common English words, so you might as well learn them now! Keep this guide handy so you’ll always have the right definitions on deck, and can put your thoughts to paper with precision.