Affect and effect: two spellings, four words

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Two spellings, four words? Unfortunately, yes. “Affect” is usually a verb, but it can be used as a noun. “Effect” is usually a noun, but it can be used as a verb. Although they come from the same Latin root and differ only by their first letter, their meanings are practically unrelated. The accent on “affect” as a noun is on the first syllable. Both meanings of “effect” and “affect” as a verb have their accents on the second syllable. In speech they sound exactly the same. Both spellings take suffixes, which in turn create new pairs of quite distinct words that differ by only their first letter.

We can easily consult a dictionary to puzzle out the various meanings, but I suspect that most people cannot quite as easily remember them all for very long. Using the two in the same sentence might help some: The effect of the similarity is confusion because the spelling affects the meaning.



The fact that the  noun affect is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable helps some, but not much. It is a technical term in psychology that refers to emotion or feeling as opposed to action or cognition. Music history students must also learn this word, because it refers to the psychological theories that drove the creation and understanding of Baroque opera. Because people are unlikely to encounter affect as a noun except as a technical term, its meaning is quite clear to whomever has learned it and a head-scratching puzzle to anyone else.


  1. a result; the outcome of a cause
  2. the way that something influences or acts on something else
  3. the power to achieve an outcome; influence
  4. being or becoming in full force, as in when a law takes effect
  5. the impression made by a performance, work of art, someone’s actions, etc.
  6. the basic gist of written or spoken language (in effect, something to that effect, etc.)

Besides whatever other meanings there may be of “effect” as a singular noun, the plural has at least two more distinct meanings.

  1. physical belongings; assets
  2. artistic techniques (such as lighting or sounds) used in or produced by a movie, broadcast, play, or other art form



  1. to bring about change; influence
  2. to pretend to have or feel; feign
  3. to make a show of liking or disliking

The first meaning of affect as a verb is at least related to the first meaning of effect as a noun. After all, whatever affects something or someone produces an effect. But try switching the two words in that last sentence. If the result means anything at all, it produces an incorrect statement.


  1. to cause
  2. to bring about
  3. to produce as a result
  4. to accomplish

I, for one, rarely come across “effect” used as a verb. I suspect that I would encounter it more if I read more nineteenth-century or earlier writings than I do. If so, it means that basic literacy requires understanding expressions that used to be but are no longer common.


Affective, like the noun form, is used only as a psychological term. It means resulting from, pertaining to, or arousing feelings or emotion.

Effective means:

  1. serving a purpose
  2. having a desired result
  3. ready for use
  4. in working order; operative
  5. in effect

Other words derived from affect or effect

You can add other suffixes to affect and effect to make other words, but you can’t add any other one suffix to both of them to make troubling pairs. Here, then, are words that may have their own difficulties, but not compounded by making a completely different word merely by exchanging the first letter. Note that affect produces more different words. And while they may be related to the psychological meaning of the noun form, none of them are limited to technical vocabulary.

  • affectation (noun)
  • affected (adjective)
  • affecting (adjective)
  • affection (noun)
  • affectionate (adjective)
  • effectual (adjective)
  • effectuate (verb)

Disorderly Conduct

Disorderly Conduct–a temporary twig sculpture at Guilford College, NC

Photo: How can I possibly find a photograph that illustrates this post’s content? Nothing came to mind, so I just picked one of my recent pictures more or less at random. I hope it makes a good effect, or an affect, or something.

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