Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Political Example: Affect Versus Effect

'm here to set the record straight. No matter to what do-gooder you listen, “effecting a change” is wrong.

I'm all for improving the plight of the down-trodden, saving endangered animals, and curing horrible diseases. But effect is a noun. Whoever came up with that buzz phrase (and I'm willing to bet it was a politician) was simply being clever.

Let's have an example. “I promise that I will effect a change in the school lunch program.”

You can't much improve the sentence by changing it to “affect a change”, although that would be grammatically correct. With either word, the sentence means that you are going to have some impact on a change.

Why would someone promise that? You can affect something—or have an effect on it—without actually doing more than flapping your gums. It's a promise, for instance, to sign a bill when hundreds of other people are finished doing the work.

None of that was what I wanted to write about today. I simply wanted to point out that “affect” acts as a verb. I you use it as a noun, change the first letter to an “e”. The only time you use affect as a noun is when you are writing in medical records or otherwise discussing someone's demeanor. If something “will affect” you, it will “have an effect” on you. That's it.

(Let's be honest, an altogether better sentence would be, “I will improve the school lunch program.” Change does not specify an improvement or a significant alteration. A better promise would sound more like, “I promise that bloggers will never pay taxes again,” or at least, “I will create a new Department of Grammar and appoint legbamel as the Secretary of Grammar.”)




I'm a little surprised to hear that this usage of "effect" as a verb is incorrect. I certainly agree that in most cases, if you want a noun you use "effect" and if you want a verb, you use "affect", and that alone would clear up most of the mistakes. But I thought your specific example was the rare instance of correct usage of "effect" as a verb...when you mean "to bring about" (nearly always followed by the word "change" and nearly always spoken by a politician, as you pointed out). I show that the World English Dictionary lists this meaning for "effect" at the dubious position of usage number 10 out of 10. Conversely, I think there is an archaic usage of "affect" as a noun if you mean "love" or "affection". I try not to use either of these lesser used meanings personally, since the verb "affect" and the noun "effect" are plenty for me.

I just found your blog today, by the way. I can't wait to share with my dad--he loves this stuff.