Affect or Effect? A Question for Academic and Scientific Authors
Among the many words in the English language that prove tricky for even the most highly educated authors to use well are ‘affect’ and ‘effect,’ both of which are used with considerable frequency in scholarly writing. These words are pronounced similarly and they both tend to express a sense of influence, but their precise meanings differ. The first is most often used as a verb, while the second is most frequently used as a noun, and were these their only uses, they might present few challenges even for writers who are not native speakers of English. As they stand, however, knowing when and where ‘affect’ ought to be used instead of ‘effect’ or vice versa can be difficult, and a few tips on using these words correctly in your academic or scientific prose may prove helpful.
‘Affect’ used as a verb usually means to act on, to produce a change in or to move the mind or feelings. ‘The article affected her so profoundly that she immediately reconsidered her own methodology’ demonstrates correct usage. ‘Affect’ is therefore the verb you should use when you are discussing the results of trials and experiments: ‘the conditions of the third trial significantly affected the way in which participants responded to the medication.’ A second meaning of the verb ‘affect’ is to feign, to pretend, to give the appearance of something or to assume an attitude artificially. ‘He tried to affect comprehension of the text’ and ‘she affected a British accent whenever she told a joke’ show how this form of the verb might be used. In discussions of plants and animals, the verb ‘affect’ can also be used with the meaning to occupy or inhabit, as it is in ‘tigers affect Asia.’
‘Affect’ is used quite rarely as a noun and primarily in psychology or psychiatry, where it refers to a feeling, an emotion or an emotional response observed by a practitioner, as in ‘blunted or flat affect can be an indication of mental illness.’ Although the noun is sometimes used with a meaning close to the second sense of the verb discussed above, as in ‘her voice had a remarkable affect that made her sound authoritative,’ a better choice here would be the noun ‘affectation.’
The noun ‘effect’ refers to a result, consequence or outcome of some action, event, agent or cause, as it does in ‘the effect of reading the article was so profound that she immediately reconsidered her own methodology.’ ‘Effect’ is therefore the noun you should use when you are discussing the results of trials and experiments: ‘the effect of the conditions established in the third trial was the most significant.’ The noun usually refers to real phenomena, but it can also have the sense of an impression or illusion, such as ‘a 3D effect.’ The plural form ‘effects’ can mean goods or personal property and it is the word used when talking about the special effects in films.
As a verb, ‘effect’ means to bring about, to accomplish, to make happen or to produce as an effect, with the sense slightly different than that of the verb ‘affect.’ ‘The meeting effected the transition to open-access publication’ and ‘the purpose of the report was to effect changes in methodology’ are correct uses of this verb.
The word ‘effect’ also features in two idiomatic phrases. ‘In effect’ is used to mean basically, essentially, virtually or for practical purposes, as in ‘her absence was in effect an admission of guilt.’ It is also used when explaining that something is functioning or up and running, which is the sense of the phrase in ‘the new rules are now in effect.’ ‘Take effect’ is similar, meaning to begin to function or to produce a result. ‘The medication should take effect in twenty-four hours’ demonstrates the correct use of that idiom.
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