Writing wrongs #8: to affect or effect? That is the question

It’s late. You’ve been at work for hours, and that M&S pizza and large glass of red are calling you home. But you have to send one last email to your boss/a client/the love interest you’re trying to impress with your grasp of grammar before you leg it out the door. You’re typing away like normal when you suddenly find your fingers hovering over the keys.

“Is it affect or effect?” the voice inside your head asks.

“Effect. It’s definitely effect,” she replies almost immediately after. The voice sounds smart – a cross between Emma Thompson and your high school English teacher. You want to trust her, but you’re still not sure. Close by a stomach (yours) grumbles as you do a quick Google to try and figure it out. Will you ever get home to that pizza? If only you knew the right answer instantly. If only…

When to use affect

In general, affect is a verb: to affect. It’s the action that causes an effect (the noun). Think of it as meaning ‘to make a difference to something’. For example:

Don’t let the bad weather affect you.
She was affected by the price rise of chocolate.
How will the country be affected after Brexit?

There’s a second verb definition, but you probably don’t use it very often. It means ‘to pretend to have or feel something’. For example:

She affected a British accent to sound more intelligent.

When to use effect

In general, effect is a noun: an effect. It’s the result of something being affected. Think of it as meaning ‘a result’ or ‘a consequence’. For example:

One of the effects of shrinking is that you can’t reach the top shelves.
The special effects were like nothing I’ve seen before.
Music has a soothing effect on my dog.

How to get home in time for dinner…

If you’re talking about actions and consequences, then remember affect is the action (a for action) and effect is the consequence.

The only time that ‘effect’ might be an action is if you were using it to mean ‘to bring about’, in other words, to effect change.

Mrs May effected some significant changes in policy.
He updated his entire wardrobe and effected a change in his personal style.

But I rarely use this meaning in day-to-day language, so don’t let it worry you too much. If you can get the rest nailed, consider yourself entitled to a smug facial expression and a second glass of wine.

Worried about how your words are affecting your clients and customers? Please get in touch, and I’ll do my best to have the desired effect.