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Flash Card: The Elephant Effect

Oh, "effect" and "affect" — why can't one of you be a noun and the other a verb? That would make life so much easier. But no, you are each a noun AND a verb and thus the inspiration for much head-scratching.

For what it's worth, however, the average Jane will generally be called upon to use "effect" as a noun and "affect" as a verb.

A special effect is a noun. The effect that stems from the cause is a noun. Waiting for the drug to take effect — "effect" is a noun there, too. As Grammar Girl points out: "Effect with an e has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but to me the meaning 'a result' seems to be at the core of all the definitions."

The most common use of "affect" is as a verb meaning "to influence" (or, dare I say, "to have an effect"). The weather affects my mood. The number of eggs affects the chewiness of the pancakes. The cone on his head affects the dog's ability to lick his wound.

Once in a blue moon you'll come across a verb form of "affect" that suggests pretense or "affectation," as in "When Cindy returned from her semester in Surrey, we couldn't help noticing that she'd affected an English accent."

If you can remember that, in most cases, "e" equals noun and "a" equals verb, you'll be well ahead of the game. But how do you remember that?

You need to find your "e" noun, the noun that will remind you that "effect" — with an "e" — is a noun. I like "elephant," a sizable noun. I equate "effect" (with an "e") to "elephant" (with an "e"). I've even invented "the elephant effect" (which manifests itself when you inhale four kinds of stuffing, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of pie).

So when I need to write something like "The effect of bad grammar is diminished credibility and ultimately lost sales," I think: "The word I'm looking for is a noun, like "elephant," which starts with an "e," like ... EFFECT!"

Yes, employing a mnemonic device like this means a little extra effort — but mistakenly writing "The affect of bad grammar is diminished credibility and ultimately lost sales" means a prospective client runs screaming.

Of course you could also associate "affect" and "verb" by coming up with a go-to "a" verb* — but picturing an elephant is easier. Nouns, being people, places or things, are more visual and thus more easily remembered than verbs, which are essentially actions and thus more abstract. (Plus, all the "a" verbs I just thought of — access, act, aggregate — also happen to be nouns, which compromises their usefulness in this context. An elephant, on the other hand, is only a noun, is always a noun, is indubitably a noun.)

And now, to dash my elegant oversimplification upon the shoals of exception.

Yes, sometimes "effect" is a verb. Perhaps the most common use of "effect" as a verb is in the construction "to effect change," which suggests some sort of achievement. See also "to effect a more productive relationship," "to effect a raise in pay" and "to effect a more effective method of keeping the squirrel out of the bird feeder."

And yes, "affect" can be a noun. According to Wikipedia, "Affect refers to the experience of feeling or emotion" and is frequently invoked in discussions of how a person is feeling vs. how she appears to be feeling. As in "Her affect is off," which often applies to the psychopathic perps peppering procedurals. With this form of "affect," the stress is on the first syllable instead of the second, more like "after" than the "affect" in "your whining does not affect me."

Fortunately, this iteration of "affect" doesn't come up much if you don't work in psychology. So at least when you're speaking, you can use "effect" or "affect" without having to think before you pronounce.

When writing "effect" or "affect," however, you'd be wise to stop and address the elephant in the room.

*Can YOU come up with a go-to "a" verb suitable for reminding people that "affect" is (almost always) a verb? It should be a verb that is not also a noun (like the aforementioned "access," "act" and "aggregate"), and it should evoke a concrete image (unlike, for instance, "accept" or "assume," which are both a little too conceptual to visualize easily). Seriously — if you think of something, let us known in the comments below.

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 5th 2011, 1:42 AM
Comment by: Editor dancing (Waimanalo, HI)
My suggestion for a word to help remember that "affect" is a verb is "accelerate." In my mind "accelerate" calls forth an image of something speeding up -- my car, for example. That makes it more visual, less abstract, than words like "access," "aggregate" or "act," which were the "a-" verbs you touched on in your article. The mnemonic progression, for me, at least, is painfully clear: if I accelerate too fast, my excessive speed could "affect" me for the rest of my life, in some most unfortunate ways. And, in compliance with your conditions of acceptance, "accelerate" is never a noun.
Monday December 5th 2011, 1:47 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
I wrote a little poem (and posted it to YouTube) to explain the differences between "effect" and "affect" in their various parts of speech:


--Phil Holland
Monday December 5th 2011, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Kristyn B. (Ventura, CA)
The first verb that popped into my head was ask. If you need a verb you don't need to ask yourself which one to use. It's affect with an a.
Monday December 5th 2011, 8:44 AM
Comment by: dorothy S.
When teaching English to young students, I found they frequently pronounced 'relevant' as 'revalent', so I encouraged them to remember the relevant elephant. Good old elephant.
-- D.S.
Monday December 5th 2011, 12:30 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Is this directed only to very young people? 'Affect' first pops into my head as "She shows less affect than is normal for an emotional young person'. And 'effect'? "How can we effect a change in this intolorable division of wealth?" I use them both equally as verbs and nouns and never thought about it. I was surprised to find this on forum as delightfully recondite at the V.T.

But if it was directed specifically to teachers of the young, forgive me.
Monday December 5th 2011, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Tay
wow nice information. I also get the two words misxed up honestly. They sound that same pretty much, so sometimes I use them wrong.
Monday December 5th 2011, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
It's scary how your mind works like mine!
Monday December 5th 2011, 6:23 PM
Comment by: Cathy A.
When used as a verb, Affect = Action!
Tuesday December 6th 2011, 3:32 AM
Comment by: Rewted
In a word, RAVEN.

Remember, Affect Verb Effect Noun.

Borrowed this one from here:

Wednesday December 7th 2011, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Affect affects attention?
Thursday December 8th 2011, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The affect of "affect" affects many an effect, all of them signs of mental meltdown.
Thursday December 8th 2011, 3:10 PM
Comment by: Jean H. (Santa Barbara, CA)
Alphabetically, affect comes before effect -- just as one must affect something in order to create an effect.
Saturday December 10th 2011, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Timoteo A.
Only today I have started dealing seriously with this prodigious website.Clarity is dawning, wisdom is being birthed, insight and assurance is being stablished.Confusion things, words or terms is being erased from the mind.Distinction of things, words and concepts is growing.O God, give me wisdom to know the difference! Oh, it is a benefit to me. I have been thinking of the ways and books to improve my vocabulary. Thank you for the seriousness of your endevor, I mean the seriousness of the team.
Thursday February 7th 2013, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Pamela T. (Fort Washington, MD)
I've always consider the "A" in affect to stand for "action". Not a verb but it's easy to remember . . .

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