Affect vs. Effect: Understanding the Difference and Choosing the Right Word

a dictionary lying on newspaper pages

If you confuse the words affect and effect, you’re not alone. These two words are some of the most commonly confused words in the English language! Because they sound alike, it can be even harder to keep them straight.

Though there are exceptions—especially in law—a quick way to remember the difference between affect and effect is:

  • affect is usually a verb meaning “to influence”
  • effect is usually a noun meaning “the result”

Industry-Specific Exceptions: In law, effect is also used as a verb meaning “to bring about.” In psychology, affect is also used as a noun meaning “emotional response.” A common business phrase is personal effects, where effect is a noun and the phrase loosely means “your personal items.”

Why We Get It Wrong

Despite what some grammar snobs might say, mixing up similar words is an honest mistake. Commonly confused word pairs often have:

  • similar meaning but not similar use
  • similar sound (called homophones)
  • similar appearance or spelling (differing by one letter)

Affect and effect have all three reasons for error. The most complicated (and least acknowledged) source of confusion is the similar meaning of the two words, which can be traced back to their Latin roots. Both words come from the Latin verb facere, which means “to make” or “to do.”

Affect vs. Effect: Definitions and Alternatives

Sometimes, even the most experienced writers can mix up words. Understanding their meaning and exploring alternatives can help.

Affect is a verb and means “to influence.” The top definition of affect in Merriam-Webster is “to produce an effect upon (someone or something).” It’s usually read as neutral. If you want a verb that evokes a negative feeling, try upset or disturb; if you want a positive verb, try inspire or sway. If you want a stronger verb, try alter or transform. The word affect can also function as a noun, though that use is usually limited to psychology.

Effect is a noun and means “the result” or “consequence.” The top definition of effect in Merriam-Webster is “something that inevitably follows an antecedent (such as a cause or agent).” It’s usually read as neutral. If you want a noun that evokes a negative feeling, try repercussion or aftermath; if you want a positive noun, try upshot or outcome. If you want a stronger noun, try consequence. Effect can also be a verb meaning “to bring about a result,” but this usage is less common. You’ll know you need the noun effect if you have an article (an or the) before it.

Affect vs. Effect: Examples

Examples can help you get a feel for correct usage. We’ve provided 10 of each.

Here are examples of affect as a verb:

  1. Jeanne’s sudden passing affected her mother deeply.
  2. Social and political issues affect
  3. Hurricane Ida has affected residents in Louisiana and Mississippi since its landfall.
  4. The farmer’s story affected me and my family.
  5. There's something about this city that affects you in a certain way.
  6. Kenneth’s all-nighters affected his sleeping patterns.
  7. Lockdown restrictions during the pandemic have affected everyone’s daily lives.
  8. The crackdown on Chinese celebrity fan culture will affect chaotic online fan communities.
  9. Diabetes statistics from 2018 show that the condition is affecting 2 million Americans.
  10. The recent water shortage affected residents in downtown Miami.

Here are examples of effect as a noun:

  1. Drinking too much alcohol can have negative effects on your health.
  2. I loved the special effects in the Star Wars movies.
  3. The poison didn’t have a lasting effect on the prince.
  4. Some medications produce side effects.
  5. News stories can have a huge effect on public opinion.
  6. The sleeping pill’s effect wore off after a while.
  7. The new laws will take effect
  8. Joseph’s criminal record had a significant effect on his track and field performance.
  9. The lawyer’s words had no effect on Jane.
  10. Our city is trying to reverse the effects of air pollution.

Here are some examples of the industry-specific exceptions:

  1. In law: This legislation will effect
  2. In psychology: People experiencing depression often exhibit flat affect.
  3. In business: Employees on business trips will receive per-diem payments for the purchase of personal effects.

Try These 5 Tricks to Remember the Difference between Affect and Effect

Still stumped? Try these five tricks to help you choose the right word.

TRICK #1 – Word Association:

A is for action (affect); E is for end result (effect).

TRICK #2 – RAVEN Memory Trick:

Try the “RAVEN” mnemonic, which stands for: R – Remember; A - Affect is a; V – Verb; E - Effect is a; N - Noun

TRICK #3 – Rhyme the Rule:

In Helpful Hints for Technical Writing, J. H. Dawson writes: “Use affect as a verb that starts with an a; use effect as a noun and you won't go astray!”

TRICK #4 – Play with Words:

In the Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, Bryan A. Garner writes: “To affect something is to have an effect on it.”

TRICK #5 – Try a Word Swap:

Replace affect or effect with another word. It’ll help you know whether you’ve used these words correctly.

    • Example: “Your story affected ” → “Your story moved me.”
    • Example: “Student walk-outs were the effect of the university’s move to change its policies.” → “Student walk-outs were the result of the university’s move to change its policies.”

Using Context to Choose the Right Word

If memory tricks don’t work for you, try using context cues to choose the right word. For example, if you’re writing about changing or influencing someone in the future, an ongoing process, or a work-in-progress, you’re probably referring to activity and the best choice will be affect as a verb. Still not sure? Look for a person or an organization doing some work. You know affect as a verb is the right choice when it describes something that influences a person or scenario.

If you’re writing about something that has already happened, you’re probably referring to the outcome and the best choice will be effect as a noun. Still not sure? Look for an if/then situation or cause-and-effect chain of events. You know effect as a noun is the right choice when you’re discussing possible outcomes. You can use effect with the following words: the, any, an, into, on, take, or (but you can’t use them with affect).

Conclusion

Don’t let anything get in the way of your message. Miscues and misunderstandings from the wrong word choice can make readers question your knowledge. Avoiding these errors is easy when you know what you want to say—and when you have an on-call editor to help. In one click, WordRake analyzes your writing and suggests edits for clarity and brevity, right in Microsoft Word or Outlook. Try WordRake free for 7 days.

About the Author

Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2018, Ivy was recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Our Story

demo_poster_play
WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.