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Effect and affect

An angry man

A question from Qais Mohammed:
What is the difference between effect and affect?


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Catherine Walter answers:
Hi Qais, You have asked a question that many native speakers of English ask when they are writing and part of the problem is that these two words, although spelt differently, are pronounced the same by many people in many contexts. So many people say affect and effect - for the word that begins with 'a' they say and for the word that begins with 'e' they say . I tend to say and /Ifekt/ - so I tend to pronounce the one that begins with 'e', / Ifekt/ but not everybody does.

What's the difference? The main use of 'affect' - with an 'a' - is as a verb meaning to have an influence. So you could say: 'Your emotional state affects how you remember things'. The word with an 'e' - effect - is usually used as a noun and it means the result of an influence. So: 'What effect will the new law have on road use?' Part of the problem, you see, is not only that these two words are spelt very similarly, often pronounced the same, but their meanings are also very similar - one's a noun, one's a verb. There is a rarer and more formal use of 'effect' as a verb - that's the one with the 'e' - meaning 'to make something happen'. So you could say: 'It is pointless to try and effect a chance in policy now'.

There are also a number of fixed phrases so something that you might hear quite often is 'take effect'. So that's effect - with an 'e' - used as a noun. Here's an example: 'New privacy regulations will take effect on July 1st.'

Since we're being complete here, I'll give you one last little meaning. You may sometimes run across the word with an 'a' but it's pronounced differently, meaning a good or bad feeling towards something, or an attitude towards something. And that's usually pronounced /æfekt/. So it's a psychology term. You might hear, or read more likely: 'The influence of positive effect on social behaviour'. But, that's quite rare and I hope that differentiating 'affect' - with an 'a' - as a verb, and 'effect' - with an 'e' - as a noun, will at least set you on the right track. Hope that's helpful.

Catherine Walter is the Course Leader of the MA in Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the Institute of Education, University of London, where she also investigates second language reading comprehension and supervises doctoral students. She is the co-author with Michael Swan of The Good Grammar Book and How English Works.


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